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College students, Pressley to gather Saturday in Cambridge for summit on sexual violence

Representative Ayanna Pressley is scheduled to join students at a summit on campus sexual violence Saturday.
Representative Ayanna Pressley is scheduled to join students at a summit on campus sexual violence Saturday.(Alex Wong/Getty Images/File)

College students from across the state plan to gather in Cambridge Saturday for a summit on addressing campus sexual violence, with Representative Ayanna Pressley and Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo slated to join them.

The event, hosted by the Every Voice Coalition with Jane Doe Inc., the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Know Your IX, and NO MORE, comes as the Trump administration has proposed changes to the federal rules around how schools respond to sexual harassment and assault.

It also comes as advocates are renewing a push for state legislation addressing sexual misconduct and violence that passed both branches last year, but did not reach Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.

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In late July, during the final days of formal legislative business for the year, the House and Senate each passed different versions of a bill that would have required all colleges and universities to survey their students every two years about the prevalence of campus sexual assault. The bills were never reconciled.

The Senate’s bill included elements of broader campus sexual assault legislation senators approved earlier in the session, such as requirements that students be trained annually on sexual violence prevention and that each college and university designate a “confidential resource advisor” who can provide students with information on available reporting options, counseling, and medical services after an assault.

Both bills — the sexual misconduct climate survey bill and the campus sexual violence bill the Senate passed in November 2017 — have been refiled in the new term and are backed by the Every Voice Coalition, a student-led group that advocates against campus sexual violence.

In August, Every Voice members said they expected a version of the climate survey bill to become law within two to four years.

Filed by Representative Lori Ehrlich and Senator Will Brownsberger, the climate survey bill this session has a total of 107 cosponsors, according to the coalition. The other campus-related bill, filed by Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Senator Michael Moore, is also backed by more than half the Legislature, with 116 cosponsors.

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The Farley-Bouvier/Moore bill would require all higher education institutions to create and communicate policies on sexual and gender-based violence, mandate prevention training for students, and outline procedures for schools responding to reports of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, according to Every Voice. The coalition said it is “urgent” to pass the bill after US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced a reversal of Obama-era guidelines on campus sexual assault investigations.

The Education Department announced its proposal concerning campus sexual assault in November, with DeVos saying at the time the goal was to ensure the grievance proceedings under the federal civil rights law Title IX “become more transparent, consistent, and reliable in their processes and outcomes.”

“Far too many students have been forced to go to court to ensure their rights are protected because the department has not set out legally binding rules that hold schools accountable for responding to allegations of sexual harassment in a supportive, fair manner,” she said. “By following proper legal procedures and receiving input on our proposed rule, we will ultimately have a final regulation that ensures that Title IX protects all students.”

Several Massachusetts officials voiced concerns about the proposed rules during a public comment period that ended last month.

Farley-Bouvier said the proposed rules include a limited definition of sexual assault that would cause “survivors to endure severe, repeated, or even escalating harassment before they can file a Title IX complaint” and that they would “shut out thousands of survivors who are assaulted at off-campus parties held by fraternities and bars because schools would not be required to investigate those off-campus assaults.”

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Representative Andy Vargas wrote that he was “concerned that students will be less likely to report their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, and that they would have a difficult time doing so even if they so desired to report.”

The state’s Higher Education Commissioner, Carlos Santiago, wrote to DeVos on Jan. 30, outlining what he described as “some of the most troubling aspects of the proposal,” and Attorney General Maura Healey submitted comments voicing opposition to the proposal and urging it be withdrawn.

Saturday’s summit runs from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in Harvard Law School’s Wasserman Hall. Pressley, DeLeo, Brownsberger, Ehrlich, and Representative Natalie Higgins are scheduled to speak.