There was a hint of irony in the news that House Speaker Robert DeLeo plans to step down from his role on Beacon Hill to take a job at Northeastern University. Since 2015, under his leadership, the Legislature has avoided passing legislation to seriously address sexual violence on college campuses. Earlier this year, DeLeo had expressed hope that the Legislature would finally send the campus sexual assault prevention bill — spearheaded by the student-led coalition Every Voice — to the governor’s desk. But now, with less than two weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers are scrambling to pass a slew of bills, and while the campus sexual assault bill recently passed the Senate, its fate in the House is not certain.
DeLeo’s plans to work on a college campus — though not yet final — should serve as a reminder for him and the rest of Beacon Hill that students across the Commonwealth have been waiting for them to act. Session after session, lawmakers chose to kick the can down the road, all while reports from schools across the country showed how disturbingly prevalent sexual assault on college campuses is. In the years that the Legislature has been debating the bill, colleges saw reported instances of sexual violence rise slightly by 3 percentage points for undergraduate women and 1.4 percentage points for undergraduate men. The House should prioritize this bill before the session ends.
The proposed legislation not only improves procedures after sexual violence is committed on a college campus — such as providing survivors with better support and guidance when navigating the process of reporting their assault — but it also attempts to prevent some incidents of sexual misconduct from occurring in the first place. For example, it would provide students and faculty with prevention training and require schools to regularly conduct surveys in order to gather more meaningful data on one of the most underreported of crimes. With more data, universities would get a better sense of how effective their own policies are and be able to adjust them accordingly.
“Students and survivors need this legislation now,” said Nora Gallo, the national director at Every Voice. “The House has publicly committed to passing this bill this session, and after six years of collaboration, we really do look forward to working with all stakeholders to get this over the finish line because we know it can, and should, happen.”
The legislation is now in the House Ways and Means Committee, whose members, for their part, have expressed support for passing it within the next two weeks. “We are still reviewing the Senate’s version of the campus sexual assault legislation but this topic remains a priority for the House,” Blake Webber, who serves as chief of staff to committee chair Aaron Michlewitz, wrote in an e-mail. “We are working diligently to get the bill passed and placed on the governor’s desk before the session ends,” Webber wrote. Gallo, who has worked on this legislation as both a student and a post-grad, said that Every Voice trusts that the House will stick to its public commitment.
But the Legislature has been here before. For years, the bill had enough support from lawmakers to pass if it made it to a floor vote, but leaders lacked the political will to push it through. Last year, both chambers passed some iteration of the bill but eventually failed to agree on a final version. Something similar could happen this year, especially because lawmakers have waited until the last minute to pass the proposed legislation.
Under DeLeo’s watch, action on this issue has moved at a creeping pace. Since this proposal was introduced in 2015, Every Voice has filed some version of the bill in several other states, and New Hampshire passed one earlier this year. While DeLeo may now have a conflict of interest in working on this bill, given that his prospective employer would be impacted by it, lawmakers can still act. Otherwise, Northeastern may well be giving DeLeo an opportunity to work with the very students he has failed to protect.