Lawmakers consider ways to address campus sexual assault

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

“Parents and students are now asking the questions when they’re going on the tours to find out if there are services available,” said Helen Archontou, CEO of YWCA Bergen County.

According to a report from the New Jersey Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault, about one in five undergraduate women nationwide experience sexual violence while on college campuses, most often in their first year of school. In about 85 percent of sexual violence cases, the victims know their attackers.

“The research is clear that how somebody responds to a disclosure can impact a survivor’s well-being,” said Sarah McMahon, associate director of the Center on Violence Against Women and Children at Rutgers University.

The report concluded that each school should conduct a campus climate survey.

“Those climate surveys really do serve as a great way for campuses to take the pulse on what’s going on in their individual campus and then to create action plans,” said Patricia Teffenhart, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

McMahon says Rutgers conducted the survey on several of their campuses, and discovered close to a quarter of women experienced some kind of sexual violence prior to coming to campus.

“We now, at our orientation, make sure that we speak to those students directly in letting them know we have resources available if they experienced something prior. We’ve changed our screening procedures in our health centers, so that we ask about previous sexual violence,” said McMahon.

The task force, which was appointed by the Legislature and Gov. Christie in 2015, also concluded that each school should maintain strong campus-community partnerships, and guarantee equal representation for accusers and the accused.

“It’s just a matter of holding campuses accountable to make sure that they’re actually following through with the guidance that already exist,” said Teffenhart.

“Those students are still going to be in our communities, and so we need to figure out ways to work with them to provide education and support to help them try to change their behaviors,” said McMahon.

The report also recommends that education on sexual violence should begin sooner than college.

The Assembly recently passed a bill requiring schools to provide age-appropriate sexual assault awareness and prevention education to students in pre-K through 12th grade.

“We know we’re not the be-all, end-all experts on that, so we’re asking the Legislature to create a primary prevention task force to inform good policy,” said Teffenhart.

The group says they’re also looking to reauthorize their campus task force because they say there is more work to do.