How well is the new law against campus sexual assault working?

Dec 18, 2015

Gov. Andrew Cuomo made anti-sexual assault legislation on college campuses a key part of his agenda in 2015. Six months after signing what’s called the “Enough is Enough” legislation, college officials say it’s helped accelerated a trend toward better awareness and reporting of incidents.

The governor, in his efforts to pass the anti-sexual assault measure, enlisted the aid of prominent women in the political and entertainment world including House Leader Nancy Pelosi and actress and comedian Whoopie Goldberg, who made a video.

The measure passed with little opposition from the legislature. The new rules are more proactive than punitive. They require each college to develop a uniform definition of affirmative consent for sexual activity so all participants make clear that they agree to proceed with any sexual act. Cuomo, at the bill signing ceremony over the summer, said the “common sense” measures are long overdue.

“If there is a victim of a sexual assault or alleged  sexual assault, that victim has rights,” Cuomo said.

Students receive a bill of rights outlining their legal protections if they are victims of sexual violence and information on how to contact campus police or state police  where a special unit will soon be set up, say state police, to help campus sexual assault victims. Schools are also required to offer students amnesty from college drinking and drug use rules if the student is reporting an assault or witnesses a violent crime committed by another student.

The issue is personal for the governor, who has three daughters -- two in college and one a senior in high school.

The State University of New York (SUNY) adopted most of the policies a year ago on its 64 campuses. SUNY’s Joseph Storch, an attorney who specializes in anti-sexual assault law compliance, said the new guidelines dovetail with other recent federal laws to combat sexual violence on campus. They include the 25-year-old Clery Act, which was named after Pennsylvania college student Jeanne Clery who was murdered in her dorm room, as well as Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act.  He said the colleges worked with students to develop a mobile phone app that spells out the definition of affirmative consent,  the students bill of rights and how to confidentially report if you think you’ve been a victim of sexual violence or have witnessed a crime being committed. Storch said the new guidelines have accelerated what was already a growing trend, greater reporting of instances of sexual assault by students.

“For obvious reason, I can’t share specific examples,” said Storch, who said sexual violence is one of the hardest things to measure because of the low level of reporting. But, he said that is now changing.

“We have seen as we expected, a significant uptick in students coming forward,” Storch said.

New York is also requiring that participants in sports and leaders of any college-affiliated clubs undergo mandatory awareness training before they are allowed to join the group or the team. Richard Trietley, who is in charge of complying with anti-sexual assault rules at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, said it’s been quite a task.

“We’re Division I, we have 14 teams, we’re moving to 16 teams, we have over 270 student athletes,” Trietley said. “So that was a major undertaking.”

But, he said he thinks the trainings and constant messaging on the topic will help change the culture and  prevent assaults.

Trietley said St. Bonaventure, though, actually had what he thinks is a better affirmative consent policy in place before the Enough is Enough law took effect. The school required an affirmative, verbal yes from both parties before engaging in sexual activity. He said the new requirement is murkier.

“You had to say the word,” Trietley said. “Now, under the new law there’s supposedly actions that would also constitute consent. We have found that in investigating cases under this new standard, that there’s a lot of gray area there.”

There are no measurable statistics yet on how well the new law is working. Campuses are required to send data to the New York State Education Department on an annual basis, but that won’t happen until later in 2016.