The Massachusetts Senate has unanimously passed a bill strengthening the laws surrounding sexual assault on college campuses, in response to the Trump administration’s calls to cut down on Title IX regulations.
The legislation, partially written and amended by several Lowell-area lawmakers, would codify and enhance several existing federal regulations on sexual violence and Title IX issues to enforce them at the state level, in case Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ office loosens existing laws.
“I am pleased that the Senate passed a bill to deal with the troubling issue of sexual violence on higher-education campuses. Massachusetts cannot wait for Washington to protect our students and provide a safer educational environment,” Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said.
Several local colleges told The Lowell Sun they support the legislation and are in favor of bolstering the rights for survivors of sexual abuse and harassment.
“I think it’s important for the state to get out ahead of this and make sure that these protections are codified in state law,” said Alisa Chapman, the director of compliance at Middlesex Community College in Bedford. “So if there’s a rollback in any way, we’re assuring the best practices.”
Senators from both sides of the aisle spoke in support of the bill and voted to pass it on to the House of Representatives, four months after the Senate approved an earlier version of the bill.
It also requires schools to provide confidential resource advisors for victims, so that coming forward with an allegation does not automatically trigger an investigation.
Many colleges already have these measures in place by following federal Title IX statutes, the Clery Act and the Violence Against Women Act.
“Representatives of UMass Lowell worked with the Legislature on the bill,” UMass Lowell spokeswoman Christine Gillette said, “and we welcome the passage of the state proposal so that all Massachusetts colleges and universities offer the same resources and policies to their campuses and the public.”
Donoghue, who added an amendment to the bill before the vote, said that “the students at UMass-Lowell and other educational institutions will benefit” from the bill and her provision.
According to a spokesman for Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, the school’s campus police and public safety chief found the language in the bill to be “almost verbatim” to existing federal laws.
“The college is supportive of survivor’s rights,” the school said in a statement. “Mount Wachusett Community College fully supports the Commonwealth’s efforts to reinforce current reporting practices as reflected in this bill.”
Representatives of Fitchburg State University were not available for comment on the legislation, but said they already utilize policies and training programs to address campus sexual assault, in accordance with Title IX and VAWA.
Chapman, MCC’s point person on Title IX, said the Legislature is “trying to ensure that we’re doing this right” in the wake of DeVos’ comments on sexual assault policies.
In September, DeVos announced the rescindment of two guidelines on campus sexual assault, including one that would raise the standard of proof needed to find someone responsible of sexual violence.
The Senate’s bill counters this change, and would keep the evidence standards at Obama-era levels.
“It’s important for the state to be able to weigh in on these issues,” Chapman said.
An estimated one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Sen. Michael Moore, one of the lead sponsors of the bill, said DeVos’ announcement was something “many people thought would never happen.”
“Because this action has created uncertainty for our students and our schools, it is a critical time for Massachusetts to put (this) law in our books,” the Democrat from Millbury said on the Senate floor before the vote. “This legislation works to empower victims to come forward and help to change the culture on college campuses.”