U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and Chris Murphy came to Yale Health yesterday for a roundtable discussion on sexual violence on college campuses.
Blumenthal coauthored the Campus Safety and Accountability Act, a proposed congressional bill that aims to combat sexual misconduct at universities. The bipartisan legislation, which was introduced this July, includes provisions requiring colleges to have “confidential advisors” to counsel sexual assault victims on their options, to train personnel that work with sexual misconduct cases, and to survey incoming students on their experiences with sexual violence. After a January report issued by the White House found that at least one in five women in college have been victims of sexual violence, Blumenthal began a discussion series with university administrators focusing on the best processes and policies surrounding issue of sexual misconduct on college campuses.
The effort to end sexual assault on campuses is a work in progress, Blumenthal said at Thursday’s discussion. He added that this is why he is soliciting the opinions of students, administrators and experts across many different educational institutions. The forums on the once taboo issue have already inspired positive change in some communities, he said.
“I have seen … a change in attitude on some campuses,” he said, adding that he has witnessed openness in discussions on sexual assault, willingness of survivors of sexual assault to come forward and speak about their experiences and an appreciation for the complexities of issues related to sexual violence. “The give-and-take, the listening, the conversation has been itself helpful in changing the culture.”
Including Thursday’s forum, Blumenthal has held 10 meetings at various schools to discuss sexual misconduct. The meeting at Yale attracted over 30 participants, including students, Title IX coordinators and other administrators that handle sexual assault policy, as well as representatives from nearby universities such as Fairfield University, South Connecticut State University and Albertus Magnus College.
Murphy, a supporter of the bill, was also present at the meeting. He noted that a significant percentage of college campuses have neglected to conduct an internal investigation of sexual assault over the past several years, calling this an “indifference” that needs to be corrected by law.
“We can do better,” Murphy said. “Yale and a lot of institutions around this table are [positive] examples.”
After an initial discussion, the two senators opened up the floor to comments and questions from other attendees.
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd said that while she understood that the bill aims to increase reporting rates for more accurate statistics, she does not want it to force students to take action if they are not comfortable doing so.
“It’s very important that we not raise the reporting rates by overriding the wishes of [victims],” Boyd said. “Someone should be able to come in and talk … without pressure.”
One other way to increase reporting, Boyd said, is to build community support for reporting rather than putting stress on those who have already been traumatized.
Students present at the discussion agreed that focusing on the community is important when it comes to reducing sexual violence on campus. Evan Walker-Wells ’14, a former Communication and Consent Educator, cited the videos that his group made last year — which featured details on how to file a formal complaint and otherwise address sexual violence — as an example of how peer education and a preventative approach can change campus climate.
Blumenthal agreed with Walker-Wells’ point, acknowledging that bills are limited in what they can accomplish.
“You can’t really legislate … changes in culture,” he said.
Students also expressed hesitation with the bill’s intention to survey all incoming students about their past experiences with sexual misconduct. Hana Awwad Eidda ’14 proposed another model — requiring universities to have a better plan to distribute the survey and encourage student responses rather than mandating them.
Walker-Wells agreed, adding that preemptively asking incoming freshmen about sexual misconduct might make them more fearful.
“Every time you ask everyone in a room if they feel safe, they feel a little less safe,” he said.
Blumenthal will host another forum today at Connecticut College in New London.