State campus sexual assault bill seeks clear policy, community collaboration

Julia Jacobs, Assistant City Editor

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A bill aiming to improve institutional response to campus sexual assault passed the Illinois Senate last week. The bill includes requirements that colleges and universities notify victims of their rights and provide them with a confidential adviser.

The Senate unanimously approved the sexual assault prevention bill May 21, which applies to public institutions and private institutions like Northwestern. The bill, which now awaits Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature, establishes a framework for Illinois schools to adhere to existing federal regulations, said Karyn Bass Ehler, chief of the state attorney general’s civil rights bureau.

“Incidents of sexual violence on college campuses far too often go unreported in part because schools’ responses are inadequate and inconsistent,” said Lisa Madigan, state attorney general, in a news release. “This measure will ensure colleges and universities institute clear policies that enchourage survivors to come forward and help them access crucial services to enable them to recover from these horrific crimes.”

Bass Ehler’s bureau drafted the bill after several months of consultation with college students, administrators, advocacy organizations and law enforcement. The bill requires universities establish a clear procedure for handling sexual assaults, as well as a strategy for informing students on the policy so they are not left directionless in the event that they are assaulted, Bass Ehler said.

“Some schools have very fancy, beautiful, gold-plated documents regarding their policies but they’re 14 pages long,” Bass Ehler said. “How is one supposed to synthesize all that information when you’re going through trauma?”

The bill also requires institutions develop either a regional or campus-wide task force comprising students, administrators, police and rape crisis center advocates to formalize community collaboration in response to allegations of sexual assault.

Institutions of higher education often form policies without the full input of students, trained rape victim advocates and the larger community, said Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, an alliance of not-for-profit rape crisis centers in the state.

“Consequently, their policies and standards serve the university more than they serve the rape victim,” Poskin said. “Universities need to work within the system and with rape crisis centers and external services to see to it that a victim has an advocate through that process.”

Victims of sexual assault must be informed of their right to either prosecute the assault outside the university or adjudicate the crime within it, she added. The bill requires institutions adopt a “fair, balanced” process for adjudicating sexual assault allegations, Madigan said.

In September, NU eliminated the Sexual Assault Hearing and Appeals System in favor of a new University Hearing and Appeals System. Now, all cases of alleged student misconduct are adjudicated under UHAS. Previously, cases of sexual assault went through SAHAS and other conduct cases were heard under UHAS.

In cases of alleged sexual misconduct, the reporting student does not need to be in the same room as the alleged assailant during their hearing.

Another key piece of the legislation says institutions must report to the state on the progress of their policies, providing information about their procedures and awareness training, as well as data such as the number of complaints of sexual assault they receive, Bass Ehler said.

If the bill becomes law, NU will closely review its contents to assess whether the University needs to make changes to its policies, procedures or training, Title IX coordinator Joan Slavin said in an email to The Daily.

Currently, the University provides confidential advocates through the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education and informs students of University policy through its website, as well as individual emails to those who may have experienced sexual violence, Slavin said in the email.

NU offers students and staff in-person training on sexual misconduct, she said. Undergraduate students also complete online training, and this fall the University will roll out an online program for faculty, staff, and graduate and professional students.

Poskin said although the bill is a step in the right direction, there’s room for improvement, including a need for more involvement from community advocacy centers. Survivors should be required to receive assistance from a rape victim advocate external to the university to give students support from an organization without a vested interest in the situation, she said.

“It’s an excellent first start for the state of Illinois, and I think once it’s implemented into law and the universities are responding to it, we’ll see where the gaps are and where some improvements might be able to be made,” Poskin said.

Twitter: @juliarebeccaj