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New London - While attending a Mitchell College forum on sexual assault Friday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal found himself fielding questions on everything from the legal process for dealing with assault reports to how his proposed legislation would impact specific scenarios on campus.
The visit is eighth in a series of roundtable discussions the Connecticut Democrat has held since January to receive feedback on legislation crafted to encourage colleges and universities to be more proactive in addressing and reporting sexual assaults. Blumenthal said he incorporated input from the discussion in the bipartisan bill he co-sponsored, the "Campus Safety and Accountability Act," which was introduced last month.
The senator said the bill aims to establish a uniform process for handling sexual-assault complaints at colleges and universities and would set minimum sexual-assault training standards for on-campus personnel. In addition, it would require universities to survey students about sexual-assault experiences and make the data publicly available.
It would also require colleges and universities to designate "confidential advisers" who would serve a similar role to victim advocates in the justice system. Blumenthal said he believes everyone should have the right to discuss an assault with a confidential adviser who can point the victim toward the services and choices available, regardless of whether he or she chooses to report the assault to the college or local law enforcement.
This "is not a woman's problem," Blumenthal said Friday. "It's a societal problem that we need to address."
Blumenthal outlined the legislation but told Mitchell College students and staff that "I'm here not so much to talk about my bill, but to listen."
The discussion fell during the training period for the college's resident assistants, and Blumenthal was joined by New London police Capt. Steven Crowley, Julie Moynihan of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center of Eastern Connecticut, and Mitchell College staff in responding to the questions and concerns of student resident advisers who attended the forum.
Glimpses of the reality of campus sexual assault shone through in some of the questions and comments from the students - the ones, said Crowley, who share the classrooms and dormitories with both victims and accused assailants.
The first student to speak was senior Anouchka Sofia, who revealed that she has been a victim of sexual assault herself and thanked the senator for addressing the issue. "Even though you are a victim, you can still be an advocate," said Sofia, who has been an RA for three years. Although she acknowledged that resident assistants aren't trained as counselors, she said RAs should focus on getting the full story from students disclosing assault and make them aware of the reporting options.
"We can be someone who's there for them when no one else is there," Sofia said, noting that simply referring students to the counseling center might cause them to remain silent.
Another RA described hypothetical interactions and asked for clarity on what constitutes sexual assault. Blumenthal told her that the legislation leaves the definition of "sexual assault" to be determined by states but stressed that clear consent is key.
"The mere fact that there is a relationship doesn't justify rape. It's a crime," said Blumenthal, who added that "this is the kind of thing the training should incorporate."
A male RA raised a different concern - that things might "become scapegoatish," allowing students to claim that a consensual sexual encounter was rape. He relayed a story of a student who reported an assault only to retract it later, saying it was false.
Blumenthal told the student that his bill requires due process and fairness to the accused, and he said there is often physical evidence to back up such claims.
Crowley went a step further in addressing the RA's concerns. He said it was likely that peer pressure got to the girl in the story, and he went on to discuss how the sometimes exuberant independence of being a college freshman and facing adult decisions for the first time can go awry.
Crowley reminded RAs that the police department will always be willing to help if necessary. "You call us, we're going to do something about it, I assure you," he said.
During the discussion, Blumenthal and college staff repeatedly reminded students that combating campus sexual assault requires not just legislation but a cultural shift as well.
"When someone comes forward with an issue like this, it might be the worst thing that's happened to them in their life," Christopher Scott, a staff member of Mitchell College's Thames Academy, told resident assistants, reminding them to maintain a supportive atmosphere in their dorms.