Massachusetts Board of Higher Education orders review of sexual assault policies

By Patricia Leboeuf

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Students' rights in regard to campus sexual assault on October 25, 2013(Shaina Mishkin/Collegian File Photo)

Students’ rights in regard to campus sexual assault on October 25, 2013(Shaina Mishkin/Collegian File Photo)

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education unanimously approved a resolution directing Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland and the state’s Department of Higher Education to coordinate a statewide effort to strengthen public campus policies surrounding sexual assault prevention.

At the Oct. 21 meeting during which the resolution was approved, members of the Board heard specific examples of the “terrific” work underway at Massachusetts state colleges and universities, said Dena Papanikolaou, general counsel for the DHE.

“(We want to) help take this problem of sexual violence through (a) system-wide approach,” Papanikolaou said. “What that means (is) getting these segments to talk to each other, share best practices and come up with practical solutions.”

According to Papanikolaou, the effort will be “two-pronged,” with the Board receiving and reviewing updates to colleges’ affirmative action policies in December.

Papanikolaou said the legal departments of the different segments of higher education in Massachusetts have already been communicating with each other, particularly on the basis of affirmative action policies, which are being updated due to recently passed federal mandates regarding the federal reporting requirement.

The Board will also receive recommendations from the commissioner on how to proceed in carrying out policy reforms. This may include forming a task force or possibly updating the “Campus Violence Prevention and Response: Best Practices for Massachusetts Higher Education” program.

As part of the resolution, the Board may also look at its own best practice guidelines put forth in the document, according to Papanikolaou.

“When you take a look at it, it’s incomplete, because it doesn’t take into account specific problems and issues raised with sexual violence,” Papanikolaou said.

The document was created in 2008 in response to the Virginia Tech shooting, and as a consequence, is heavily focused on addressing active shooter violence.

The Board wants to see if it can come up with a similar set of best practices specific to the subject of campus sexual violence, Papanikolaou said.

The coordination process has not yet been outlined, but Freeland’s recommendations for a plan of action will determine the coordination effort.

Papanikolaou also said the Board will conduct a policy review which will identify gaps and enable the creation of “strong and consistent” policies. She said she believes that this issue is on the Board’s agenda because of widespread media and public attention to the problem.

“I think it’s the national climate…very few issues have attracted this national attention,” Papanikolaou said.

“Sexual assault is an issue that is of major concern to colleges and universities across the country,” UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said. “Clearly, it’s something that’s prevalent and we need to do something about it.”

Blaguszewski added that the University is interested in learning from experience and will not “stand still” while the Board is conducting its review efforts.

“(We’re) certainly going to take additional steps and new approaches and see how they work,” he said.

The UMatter at UMass campaign, which includes bystander intervention training, and a new group on campus that advocates training in handling sexual assault for men, are “fairly new initiatives” by the University meant to address this problem, Blaguszewski said.

The United States Department of Education has also increased its enforcement toward colleges accused of mishandling complaints, Papanikolaou added.

According to Papanikolaou, through Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all educational programs and activities that receive government funding, schools that receive federal money must have strong policies in place to address campus violence.

“Bottom line, what this is about is student safety,” she said. “If our students don’t feel safe, how can we expect them to learn, to grow (or) to succeed?”

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at [email protected]