College students rally for tougher policies to prevent campus sexual assaults
When Danielle St. Pierre reported to administrators at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth that she had been raped by a fraternity brother in 2012, she said administrators asked her if she had provoked him and what she was wearing.
Now, St. Pierre, 25, is calling on Massachusetts legislators to adopt stronger policies to protect students from sexual violence on campus and ensure colleges treat the issue seriously.
She is part of a student-led movement that has gained greater urgency since President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, issued controversial guidelines in September designed to give colleges more flexibility in how they investigate and resolve allegations of sexual misconduct.
“College campuses are students’ home away from home,” St. Pierre said, speaking through a megaphone Tuesday at a rally outside the State House, attended by about 200 college students and recent graduates. “They should feel safe. It should not be a hunting ground for violence.”
DeVos’s guidelines were applauded by advocates for accused students, who said many colleges were biased in favor of female accusers and were trampling the due-process rights of alleged perpetrators — mostly men — in campus “kangaroo courts.”
But advocates for sexual assault survivors said DeVos’s actions, which included the scrapping of Obama-era guidelines from 2011 and 2014, amounted to a rollback of protections for victims under Title IX, the 1972 federal law that forbids gender discrimination in education.
For her part, DeVos said her changes would protect the rights of both parties, “giving everyone more confidence” in campus judicial proceedings.
In Massachusetts, long considered a national leader in higher education, some legislators say the state should not defer to the Trump administration’s guidance on campus sexual assault.
The speakers at Tuesday’s rally called for the passage of two state-level bills which would address some of the concerns that victims’ advocates have expressed about DeVos’ policies.
One bill would create an anonymous survey to measure incidents of sexual assault on campuses in Massachusetts. The other, which passed the state Senate in November, would make more sweeping changes designed to inform students of their rights and ensure a fair process for investigating and resolving allegations of sexual violence.
Among other changes, the bill would require that colleges use the lower “preponderance of evidence” standard when determining whether a student committed sexual assault, rather than the higher “clear and convincing” standard that DeVos’s guidelines allow colleges to use.
The bill would also mandate that both the alleged victim and the accused be given a clear statement of their rights; be allowed to bring a lawyer to disciplinary proceedings; and be given an equal opportunity to present evidence and witnesses on their behalf. College employees and students would also be trained annually on sexual violence prevention.
The two bills are backed by victims’ advocacy groups such as Jane Doe Inc. and the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.
But the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, which represents 60 private colleges in the state, including prominent institutions such as Harvard and MIT, has expressed concerns about the sweeping bill.
The association says a provision that would require colleges to accept public comment when they make substantive changes to their sexual assault policies “would be operationally unworkable and would cause delays in vetting and implementing changes to an institution’s policies.”
“The bill should not make it more difficult for a college to thoughtfully review and improve its policies as needed,” the association said Tuesday. “Further, efforts to ‘clarify’ the role of responsible employees could inadvertently make it more difficult or confusing for students to get connected as soon as possible to the help they need.”
The association said it is committed to ensuring that Massachusetts is safe for students, but is concerned the bill creates two sets of rules — one from the federal government and one from the state government.
“This would confuse the process on campuses, and would not necessarily be an improvement,” said Richard J. Doherty, the association president.
Both bills are pending before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, the committee chairman, said he hasn’t studied the measures closely because he has been busy crafting the House budget, which is due to be released Wednesday. “But I look forward to seeing where the conversation goes,” said Sánchez, a Boston Democrat. “My eyes and ears are open.”
St. Pierre said the student who raped her was eventually kicked off campus when he was found responsible for another sexual assault.
But before that, she said, she was so afraid of running into him that she walked around campus holding her phone with the college police on speed dial. Feeling hopeless, alone, and exposed, she later attempted suicide by swallowing pills.
“No student should have to go through what I did,” St. Pierre said. “And if they do, there should be support, policies, and resources provided to each survivor.”
Cynthia Cummings, UMass Dartmouth’s assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, said the university cannot comment on individual cases, “but we are very confident in the victim-centered approach that we take to sexual assault cases.”
“Our Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality has been at the forefront of this issue since 1970, supporting victims of sexual assault and educating our entire community about the issue,” she said in a statement. “Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for victims to seek and receive the support they need.”