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EDITORIAL

Beacon Hill should finally pass campus sexual assault bill

After five long years of delays and excuses, it’s time for lawmakers to pass a bill to promote safer college environments.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo says he is optimistic that legislation designed to reduce sexual assault on college campuses will pass this year.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo says he is optimistic that legislation designed to reduce sexual assault on college campuses will pass this year.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

For over five years, Every Voice, a coalition of students, has been pushing the Massachusetts Legislature to pass legislation to address the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. And for over five years, the Legislature has punted on the issue. Last week, however, in a statement that gave advocates some hope, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he feels optimistic that a bill can finally get passed before the end of the year.

But DeLeo should be more than hopeful about passing the legislation; he should be certain. After all, the bill has the votes to pass, and both the House and the Senate passed versions of it last year before failing to reach a final agreement. And since the bill was first filed in Massachusetts in 2015, some iteration of it has been passed in several other states, including in New Hampshire earlier this year. So the question has to be asked: What’s taking Massachusetts, the first state to take up the legislation, so long?

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The bill aims to curb sexual assault on college campuses by providing students and faculty with prevention training and ensuring that survivors get the support and guidance they need. It would also require institutions to conduct climate surveys on a regular basis in order to gather more data on the prevalence of sexual assault on their campuses. Since sexual assaults are one of the most underreported crimes, the more data universities collect, the better they can evaluate the efficacy of their policies.

Last year, the Globe editorial board urged Beacon Hill to pass the bill. This year, we do so with renewed urgency. In May, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced new federal Title IX regulations that narrow the definition of sexual harassment and free schools of the responsibility to investigate off-campus incidents of sexual assault, unless they happen at school-sponsored events or on the property of an officially recognized student organization. The new regulations could also discourage survivors from reporting incidents, underscoring the need for schools to have measures in place that ensure survivors are protected and can remain anonymous if they so choose.

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Devos’s regulations focus on ensuring due process and protecting the rights of the accused because of concerns that Obama administration rules created incentives for schools to side with accusers — a concern that is echoed in the opposition to bills like the one in front of the Massachusetts Legislature. But the state bill ensures fairness and due process for both parties. While earlier iterations of the proposed legislation included provisions banning cross-examination, for example, the latest version, in compliance with the new federal regulations, leaves that option open.

The coronavirus pandemic has isolated students from their usual support systems — like friends or counselors — leaving victims more vulnerable after an assault. The bill would allow victims to confidentially report an incident to their school without triggering an investigation, if they prefer to go that route. It would also require schools to provide advisers to help victims navigate the system.

Ultimately, the bill seeks to create safer environments on campuses. “We have students coming in from all over the world to go to our universities, which are world renowned, and we have a responsibility to make sure that when they come to our schools, that we are doing everything in our power to make sure that they’re safe,” said state Representative Lori Ehrlich, the bill’s sponsor.

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There is no doubt that the bill would give universities more tools to address and reduce the number of sexual assaults happening on their campuses. But if the bill passes, schools should do more than adhere to its minimum requirements. A one-time sexual assault training for students and staff isn’t enough. Colleges should continually provide students with support, training, and education on sexual violence and its prevention throughout their time on campus.

Still, the Legislature has to take the first step. After five years of delay and excuses, it is time to act.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.