More than half of the states considered legislation this year aimed at preventing or coping with campus sexual assault, and experts predicted more will continue to weigh in on an issue that keeps making headlines.
That’s welcome news to many who worry about how to combat this problem — and concerning to others, who think layering laws and regulations on colleges could just confuse things. Kevin Kruger, the president of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, offers his opinion:
By Kevin Kruger
Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the “Enough Is Enough” legislation, which aims to increase protections against sexual assault on college campuses statewide. While there is a lot that is good in the new law, I remain very concerned about the broader implications of state-by-state legislation to address sexual assault—particularly as the District of Columbia takes up its own legislation—and find Governor Cuomo’s comments about the reasons for advancing the law quite flawed.
Cuomo asserted at the bill signing that campuses have not previously acknowledged issues like domestic violence and campus sexual assault and that institutions are putting their reputations before the needs of their students.
Cuomo is flat-out wrong.
Advancing half-truths and twisting statistics for political gain does nothing to prevent incidents of sexual assault, help victims or make campuses stronger. Public and private college and university administrators, advocates and other experts are working together proactively and students are safer now than they have ever been.
Institutions have redoubled their efforts to respond to sexual assault and created victim-centered processes and resources to be in compliance with guidance from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Institutions nationally have reorganized or added new staff to address complex compliance and regulatory expectations, with goals of changing the culture of their campuses and reducing occurrences of assault.
In my career-long work in student affairs, I can attest that the last thing individuals responding to victims would think about is the reputation of the institution. They are focused on ensuring a victim is receiving the support they need.
Having said that, I must stress that colleges aren’t courts of law — we are tasked with providing educational processes to allow victims to pursue their academic interests and hold those accused accountable for their actions if they are found responsible. Despite what any movie or magazine article or governor may assert, institutions are meeting these goals.
Despite the incorrect statements made by the governor, there is a lot that is good in this new law. I am a big fan of anything that helps students understand the complexity of relationships and applaud the state’s clear, simple and easy to understand definition of “consent.”
Best practices like bystander intervention training and campus climate surveys are included in the law, as is funding of new requirements, and I agree that all students should have have a safe and confidential place to report sexual assault.
I am, however, concerned that with three states (New York, California and Connecticut) passing legislation on campus sexual assault awareness and prevention, we may soon have a state-by-state patchwork dictating what are very complex campus processes.
As we’ve seen with the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, sponsored by a group of 12 US senators, a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work well for higher education and I doubt 50 state-specific approaches (plus the District) will be any more effective.
For example, with the enactment of New York’s law, there are now three different state definitions of consent on the books. Adding 48 more would dilute the intended goal of providing clarification.
No student is going to ask themselves, “What state am I in? What definition of consent do I have to apply here?” which means the patchwork approach will ultimately fail to meet the needs of students and become a bureaucratic mess for institutions.
I am further concerned that language proposed in many states assumes that every institution is a residential, four-year institution meaning that many institutions will be held accountable for compliance when their campus doesn’t fit the legislation’s criteria.
The high-tech, blended-learning model of today reflects the increasing complexity of higher education and requires legislation that acknowledges shifting institutional types and cultures in order to truly put students first.
As with any legislation, there are elements of the “Enough Is Enough” law that are good, some that may have unintended consequences and the actions of others miss the greater mark on behalf of political gain.
Campus sexual assault is an issue of great concern, but our solutions must prioritize the experience of students, not the scoring of political points.