Roots of college sexual assault issues go far beyond campus, lawmakers told
Within three weeks, a task force that has taken a year to study issues surrounding sexual assault on college campuses in New Jersey will issue its report and recommendations.
Only limited details about the report were shared Monday, when three members of the Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault updated their progress before the Assembly Higher Education Committee, which had scheduled the hearing in hopes the report would be ready.
It’s close, though its leader cautioned the lawmakers that no single piece of legislation can solve a problem rooted in larger socioeconomic norms.
Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said colleges aren’t solely responsible for a culture that has led to as many as 1 in 5 women students sexually assaulted, and as many as 1 in 16 men victims of attempted or completed assaults.
“If we really want to talk about sexual violence prevention on college campuses, we need to do the work back home and in our communities to help our students be safer and treat each other kindly and with respect before they get to our institutions of higher education,” said Teffenhart, the task force co-chair.
Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, said it’s not easy for a single task force report to encapsulate the issue.
“It’s complicated. It a very complicated situation, issue, and I appreciate the fact that you recognize that what’s happening on campus is not happening in a bubble,” Jasey said. “I think it represents one of the big issues that we as a society need to talk about and address.”
Sarah McMahon, associate director of Rutgers University’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children, says colleges are understandably hesitant to conduct campus climate surveys measuring the prevalence of sexual assault and students’ attitudes and behaviors.
“They can potentially reveal weaknesses and problems on campus. There are concerns about how this will impact universities’ reputations, which is understandable,” McMahon said.
But McMahon said the surveys are necessary to understand what’s happening on campus, in order to create an effective response and prevention plan, and that federal grants can be secured to help pay for them.
“At this point, it should be clear that this level of accountability is expected by our students, their families, members of the community and the public,” McMahon said.
“It does indeed take institutional courage to conduct these assessments,” she said, “but what we’ve found in our experience at Rutgers and in consulting with other universities around the country is that those universities who conduct campus climate surveys and are transparent about their findings are actually better able to help build trust within their communities around these issues.”
Teffenhart said colleges must consider how they promote gender equity, encourage bystander intervention and facilitate adjudication processes in ways that deter assaults. The final report will recommend partnerships between campuses and local rape crisis centers, local law enforcement and county sexual assault response teams, she said.
Teffenhart said sexual assault says prevention programming is essential but must be a sustained, repeated message.
“In order for prevention to be effective, it must saturate a community,” Teffenhart said. “One-shot deals during first-year orientation or spotlight sessions for specialty groups on campus, they just don’t work.”
The report will contain a subsection about drugs and alcohol on campus. Task force member Anne Marie Bramnick, a criminal-defense attorney and former prosecutor, said the issue was a recurring one over the task force’s year of work.
“Two of the major issues that came up through every single conversation that we had and every time that we met were the issues of consent and the issues of alcohol,” Bramnick said.