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State House approves bill to increase prevention of sexual assault

By Johanna Somers

Publication: theday.com

Published April 10. 2014 2:00PM   Updated April 11. 2014 9:12AM
Measure prompted by Title IX complaint against UConn

Hartford — The state House of Representatives unanimously passed a sexual assault and domestic violence prevention bill on Thursday that aims to increase reporting, enhance prevention programs and provide victims with more information about their rights.

"One in five women students on college campuses will experience sexual assault," said state Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, who co-chairs the Higher Education Commission. "We would not be taking this action if young and courageous women were not coming forward to tell us their stories. We would not have this issue before us if student activists, alumni, faculty and college leadership were not speaking out and taking collective action."

The legislation comes in response to federal complaints and a Title IX lawsuit that alleges that the University of Connecticut responded to reports of sexual assault with deliberate indifference or not at all. Title IX prohibits any educational program that receives federal financial assistance to discriminate on the basis of gender.

The bill also expands on current law that requires institutions to adopt and disclose policies on sexual assault and intimate violence and offer prevention programs.

Several legislators said what they appreciate most about the bill is that it defines bystander intervention. Bystander intervention is a relatively new prevention model that encourages friends, family members and bystanders to get involved in incidents that are often thought of as "domestic" or private.

"In our society, we like to think this is just expressive of a very small number of people who are perpetrating these assaults, but in fact there may be a wider mindset that allows it to happen. And bystander intervention in this bill is designed to enable and empower members of the public, members of the school community and members of the victim's close friends to step forward and intercede and disrupt what may be an ongoing or an initial sexual assault," said state Rep. Tim Legeyt, R-Canton.

During the Higher Education Committee public hearing on sexual assault this year, legislators heard about Connecticut universities' failure to inform victims of their rights and respond with compassion.

"Only 12 percent of the survivors of sexual assault report because the process discourages them from reporting," Willis said. "Victims are not always provided the information that is easy for them to understand their options. They are concerned about the stigma attached to reporting. Victims also are readily blamed: She shouldn't have gone to that party, she shouldn't have been drinking, she shouldn't have been wearing that outfit. There are also cases where the investigations have been mishandled. And they also are concerned that there are no sanctions taken or what sanctions are taken against the perpetrator are light."

State Rep. Noreen Kokoruda, R-Madison, said that during the public hearing, she heard from a constituent who said she had been sexually assaulted and that it took eight years for her to receive her sexual assault report from a Connecticut educational institution. The woman, who is now a rape counselor, told Kokoruda that what is most important about the bill is that it requires the institution to inform the victim of her or his rights and provides support for victims.

The bill requires an institution that receives a report of sexual assault, intimate violence or stalking to immediately inform the victim through written notification of her or his rights under the institution's policies. The bill also requires institutions to allow for anonymous reporting.

The bill aims to support victims by requiring institutions to create a diverse campus response team. The team would have to include the institution's Title IX coordinator, the chief student affairs officers and, to the extent available, a representative from the institution's administration, counseling services, health services, women's center, special police force or campus security, faculty, staff, student body, residential life and judicial hearing board. The university must also enter into a memorandum of understanding with at least one community-based sexual assault service center along with one community-based domestic violence agency.

State Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said the bill is a start, but the state needs to improve its education about sexual assault and intimate partner violence throughout Connecticut's communities and local schools.

"I stand in very strong support of this, but I believe that our task is still far ahead of us," Hwang said. "We need to empower people to believe that violence has no place in our community."

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

j.somers@theday.com

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