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Bill would create sexual misconduct climate surveys for Connecticut’s colleges

Members of the legislature's Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee heard testimony on Tuesday from Connecticut students, advocates and legislators on a bill that would require college campuses to conduct anonymous sexual misconduct surveys every two years.

The proposed legislation, H.B. 6374, would enable colleges to collect information about sexual violence incidents on campus. It also would establish a council, with appointed members ranging from students to higher education officials, that will be required to submit a report about the surveys to the General Assembly every two years.

Another part of the bill includes providing amnesty to those who report an assault so that they will not be "subject to disciplinary action for violation of a policy of the institution of higher education prohibiting the use of drugs or alcohol."

"In order to foster a safer, more welcoming environment for survivors of sexual violence, it is imperative that ... the stigma of substance abuse during sexual assault be torn down. That is what part of this bill does," said Rep. Jane Garibay, D-Windsor.

Supporters of the legislation said that mandating the state's colleges and universities to conduct the surveys every two years would provide the institutions with more frequent information about sexual misconduct on campuses.

Sara Thakur, a student at Yale University, explained during the hearing that the two-year frequency of the survey accommodates students at Connecticut's community colleges and state universities because it allows people to communicate their experiences with the institution they attend, even if they move or take time off.  Thakur said Yale takes a survey every four years.

"This provision is a necessity to accommodate all students around the state, not just the ones who have the privilege to go to institutions such as Yale," Thakur said. "My only time to take the campus climate survey was spring of my freshman year, I wasn't even fully done with my first year and had more than 75% of my college experience, and only had one chance to fill out the survey. Yale, do you think that that is fair? ... The frequency of the survey will help get real-time data and improve student lives going forward."

Stephanie Spangler, Vice Provost and Title IX Coordinator at Yale, testified that conducting such a survey every two years would have limitations.

"Developing and administering a high-quality comprehensive survey, including building campus energy for an adequate response rate, takes at least one year," she testified. "Analyzing the data and communicating the findings to the campus can require another one to two years. Taking action in response to the findings begins with the initial data analysis but must necessarily continue following the final data analysis — and, of course, it takes even more time to assess the impact of new programs and initiatives. In short, the four-year cycle allows institutions to make full use of the information students have shared."

When asked how much implementing this legislation would cost, Alison Hagani, state director of Every Voice Coalition Connecticut, testified that because other states have implemented similar surveys, a Harvard Kennedy School report found that the cost would be about $3,000 per school.

"I think when evaluating those costs, we should be cognizant of two things. One, no institution within this bill needs to hire an outside consulting firm," Hagani said "And the second thing that I will say about inflated costs is that schools can rely on existing institutional research staff to help them analyze the data" and that a new hire isn't necessary.

Although the legislation received overwhelming support on Tuesday, officials from some of the state's private colleges have asked for the committee to make modifications to the bill.

Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, said the member institutions share the same goals that the bill addresses, but they would like the legislation to be more "flexible" when it comes to data collection. She also had concerns about who would choose what kind of survey to be distributed. The bill puts it in the hands of the appointed council.

"Many of our member institutions' campus climate surveys encompass much more than issues around sexual misconduct. Equity and diversity are critically important as well," Widness said in written testimony. "Questions regarding experiences based on other protected classes ... may be included. In addition, every campus is different ... and our surveys need the ability to reflect that."

Widness explained that legislation in Massachusetts and New York require colleges to focus on data that the institutions collect through a campus climate survey that they developed themselves, instead of having a task force decide the survey they should use.

Spangler shared Widness's concerns and suggested that the council should review an array of methods that would "reflect the many differences among campuses and will allow campuses to choose the method that will be most likely to provide them with meaningful and actionable information."

"We recommend that the council develop a flexible toolbox, rather than a single instrument to measure campus climate," Spangler said. "I agree with one of our student colleagues that we cannot wait every four years to change culture."

Adria Watson is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2021 © The Connecticut Mirror.

awatson@ctmirror.org

 

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