Blumenthal bill targets campus sexual assault

After visiting seven colleges throughout Connecticut to talk about the issue, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal has announced he is crafting legislation to create a "bill of rights" for victims of sexual assaults on college campuses.

Noting that one in five women will become a victim, Blumenthal called campus sexual assault a national epidemic.

"Sexual violence is a societal issue, not a women's issue, and more must be done to protect students on campuses nationwide," he said.

Blumenthal is working with Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on legislative proposals that would codify these rights at the federal level, establishing accountability standards for schools and greater protections for victims.

The "bill of rights" would give all students the right to a safe and secure campus; right to a fair and impartial investigation; right to confidentiality; and right to clear notice of and access to available services.

"Listening to Connecticut survivors, campus leaders, law enforcement officials and advocates, I'm determined to fight for a bill of rights - assuring campus sexual assault survivors that we're on their side in preventing and punishing this contemptible crime," said Blumenthal.

The timing of the proposal also coincides with Connecticut's new law that requires all higher learning institutions to give the victim of an assault concise written notice of his or her rights, and allows all institutions to permit anonymous reports. The law now also requires these schools to enter into a memorandum of understanding with at least one community-based sexual assault crisis service center and one community-based domestic violence agency. The victims must also have access to free and confidential counseling and advocacy services.

Blumenthal is also urging the Senate Committee on Appropriations to fully fund the President's request of $11 million for the Reduce Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking on Campus Grant Program administered by the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women.

Connecticut College used these funds from the Department of Justice four years ago to launch its Think S.A.F.E. Project, a comprehensive sexual assault and domestic violence prevention program that also encompasses response, education and training.

Darcie Folsom, director of Sexual Violence Prevention and Advocacy at Connecticut College, said Blumenthal's proposal will bring sexual assault prevention efforts to the national forefront and help create a unified standard of response at college campuses.

Folsom's position and corresponding programs were created in 2010 using a $300,000 three-year grant from the Department of Justice.

"When you have three years to establish something at no cost it gives the college time to see how valuable the programs are," said Folsom. "The culture on the campus has changed. Students know how to seek me. They know where to go to get help."

She said grant funding ended last May, but the college valued the work being done at the campus that the school is now funding the work.

A 19-page report that was created after Blumenthal visited the Connecticut colleges suggested that educational programs should be consistent and not limited to incoming freshmen.

"The first few weeks that a student spends on campus are already filled with required programming in addition to new classes and new extracurricular activities," the report said. "This limited period of time is not ideal for meaningfully informing students about a school's sexual assault policies.

The report also calls for sexual assault prevention efforts to begin in middle and high school since most students develop attitudes toward acceptable sexual behavior before they enter college.

Victims, the reported noted, should have access to trained professionals. The victim must also have the right to decide whether he or she wants to pursue a criminal prosecution, participate in the college disciplinary process or both.

And schools must comply and accurately report crimes that occur on or around the campus, the report said.

"Reporting on statistics and policies while important is only one step," the report said. "Colleges should be required to review and report on the effectiveness of their implementation of these policies."

i.larraneta@theday.com

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