Fairfield students discuss sex-assault bill
FAIRFIELD -- It's no secret that victims of sexual assault are often unwilling to come forward. That's as true in college as it is anywhere else.
On Monday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., spoke in front of nearly 200 students at Fairfield University. His aim was to get feedback on pending federal legislation he co-sponsored, which intends to make sure fewer campus sex assaults go unreported.
There are many reasons student victims of sex crimes might stay quiet, Blumenthal said. One of the biggest is arguably the fear that they won't be taken seriously.
"People don't trust the system," Blumenthal said. "They don't expect it to be fair."
Campus sexual assault has been a hot topic of late: In the spring, the Obama administration released a list of 55 U.S. colleges and universities -- including the University of Connecticut -- that are under investigation for mishandling sex-assault complaints.
This was the senator's second visit to Fairfield U. to discuss campus sex assault. He came to the university in March, months before the bill was introduced, seeking information on the campus climate and student concerns.
Blumenthal cited Fairfield University as an example of an institution that does a good job at both preventing sexual assaults and handling complaints.
But there are still obstacles that prevent many from reporting campus sex crimes. A report released in January from the White House Council on Women and Girls shows that only 12 percent of college students who are victims of sexual assault report the crime to law enforcement.
The federal legislation, introduced in July, has several provisions intended to change the culture around sexual-assault reporting. For one thing, the legislation alters the way assault complaints are investigated.
"In some universities, if an athlete is involved in a sexual assault, the decision (about how to proceed with the investigation) is done by the athletic department," Blumenthal said.
The new legislation would forbid a subgroup, like an athletic department, from investigating complaints against its members. Other provisions include conducting annual surveys at all U.S. colleges and universities asking students about their experiences with sexual violence. The results would be published online, so that prospective students and parents could see them.
After a brief presentation on the legislation, which Blumenthal hopes will pass by the end of the year, the students were able to ask questions. A few asked whether the bill does anything to encourage those who witness or suspect a sexual assault to report it. The bill does include a provision stating that students who admit to underage drinking or other violations in the process of reporting sexual violence won't be punished.
Sophomore Erica Osowkiski, 19, asked Blumenthal what the legislation does to encourage bystanders to come forward.
Blumenthal said that while the legislation would provide support for bystander-training programs, it doesn't require universities to have them.
"We think that the decision should come from the universities," he said.
This school year, Fairfield University will launch its own bystander program, called Step Up Stags, which educates students on how to intervene if they see an assault or potential assault.
"It educates students to step in if they see something," said Thomas Pellegrino, Fairfield University's vice president for student affairs.
After the presentation, Osowkiski said it's "a little discouraging" that the federal legislation won't require bystander training. But she liked the idea of not sanctioning students who admit to drinking while reporting a suspected assault.
"By saying in this legislation `If you say something, you're not going to get in trouble' -- that's huge," Osowkiski said.
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