Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Massachusetts bills stand with victims of sexual assault, not the accused

At the Massachusetts State House Tuesday, hundreds of college students — some of whom have experienced sexual violence — demanded action be taken on bills that would give more rights to sexual assault survivors on their campuses.

These bills are promising to those who have been traumatized by these experiences and are seeking justice for their assailants. The current guidelines advising colleges on how to handle sexual assault cases, which were proposed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, seem to favor the accused and reverse years of legislative progress made by the Obama administration. These new bills, which are only applicable on the state level, can at least stand with victims and assure them of their rights in court.

If you ask DeVos, the guidelines she proposed are in the name of justice and due process. But in a judicial system that has historically neglected the voices of victims for issues beyond just sexual assault, perhaps it’s that very process that needs amending. Rape survivors deserve all the legal support they can get, and that process shouldn’t be made any harder than it already is.

When people like Brock Turner, or more recently and more locally, Samson Donick, get let off the hook and don’t face the consequences they clearly deserve, we are reminded of how broken this system is. Stories like these discourage survivors from coming out with their own, knowing their side doesn’t get heard anyway and that justice is skewed in favor of the accused. This pattern needs to end, and the fact that our federal government can’t see through these injustices speaks volumes about administration right now.

This is why it’s important for Massachusetts to pass these bills, even if they don’t seem to have much weight. Many are concerned that the passage of these bills would clash with the federal laws on how to handle sexual assault on college campus. These concerns, especially at private colleges like Boston University, do make sense, as it puts universities in a legal gray area and could potentially hinder the legal process. Similar to what happened after the legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts in 2016, after DeVos’s guidelines were proposed, BU released a statement saying none of the university’s policies would change.

But it seems that all we have these days are symbolic gestures, and that’s better than nothing — which would be the equivalent of automatically deferring to the Trump administration’s policies. Trump himself is accused of being a sexual predator and is currently involved in a scandal involving porn star Stormy Daniels. It’s simply not an option to yield to regulations passed by people he believes are competent and are carrying the country in the right direction. Trump has in fact lauded cabinet member DeVos several times.

While the second bill deals more with rights and ensuring survivors’ voices get heard in trial, the first bill is also key in gauging the culture surrounding these issues on campus. Surveys in general provide officials with information on how to enforce better policies. It would be effective to have a database of responses from students about how they feel about these issues. Anonymity ensures more candid responses and accurate information about the real nature and frequency of sexual assault.

In 2015, BU conducted a “Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey” to learn more about what students go through. The survey asked many questions, including questions about the perceptions students have about sexual assault on campus and how much they think BU is concerned about them. According to the survey, 25 percent of female students said they have been victims of sexual assault. But this survey hasn’t happened since, which somewhat defeats the purpose of having one. Surveys that are conducted each year can help the school measure progress or lack thereof. It can also assure students that BU does care about their safety and wellbeing.

College shouldn’t be a place for these instances to occur, but they only seem to be growing in prevalence. Young students attend college and earn their degrees not only in the hopes of landing a job after graduation, but also to learn and grow. College campuses should be safe academic spaces, free from the looming fear of sexual predators on campus. They should promote learning and knowledge.

And if survivors feel brave to share their stories, then colleges should listen to them. They have been traumatized and just want reassurance that everything will be OK. Sexual assault shouldn’t shape a young person’s college experience; rather, their experiences should be shaped by friends they meet and the classes they enjoy.

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