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Task Force to Study College Sexual Assaults, Issue Report – If Christie Signs Bill

Advocates and educators remain divided over best ways to protect victims, pursue attackers

patricia teffenhart
Credit: NJCASA/
Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault

Painful, complex stories of college sex assaults have become familiar fodder in the national news, and reports suggest that at least one in five female students will be victimized on campus. New Jersey, with its wealth of esteemed higher-education institutions, hasn’t escaped this trend, with alleged attacks at Montclair, Rider, and William Paterson universities -- and others -- coming to light in the past year.

This drumbeat of publicity, along with firsthand reports from college students in his district, prompted state Sen. Peter Barnes III (D-Middlesex) to create a package of legislation designed to reduce campus sex assaults. But school officials and sexual-assault advocates have opposed most of these proposals, in large part because they say the senator’s plan trades victims’ privacy for a chance of prosecution -- despite statistics showing only a tiny percentage of rapists ever end up in jail.

Regardless of this split, higher-education representatives and victims advocates came together last week to support one Barnes proposal, which also received unanimous support in the state Senate and Assembly. The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) creates a 12-member task force to study the problem and the patchwork of federal, state, local, and school mandates that now shape campus policies on sex assault, and issue recommendations within a year.

Gov. Chris Christie’s office did not respond to questions about his plans regarding the bill, which needs his signature to become law.

“It’s not as good [as the other proposals.] It’s a weaker bill. But it’s still a good bill,” Barnes said Tuesday. “We want the colleges to be partners.”

Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, suggested the task force is the right place to start. Colleges are required to track all crimes reported on campus she said, but they have different policies in place for processing such complaints -- including referring alleged attacks to law enforcement - pursuing those accused, and caring for the victims.

“This gives us the greatest opportunity to assess the current policies and the gaps … and then create really informed policies that get at the crux of the issues,” Teffenhart said. The coalition, allied with the Rutgers Center for Violence Against Women and Children, has worked informally with a number of universities in recent years, she said, but this measure would formalize and expand this work. “The task force gives us the time and space to be thoughtful.”

But Barnes, with a strong connection to law enforcement -- his father, a former state senator and parole board director, was an FBI agent -- says it makes sense to ensure police professionals are involved with processing these incidents and prosecuting the offenders. “Mandatory reporting takes it out of the school’s hands,” he said.

One critical bill in the package he proposed addresses this gap by requiring all higher-education institutions to relay any reports they receive of sexual assault to local police, who are connected to teams that can gather and preserve evidence, assist victims, and pursue accused attackers. Crimes reported to police are also logged into larger state and federal databases, allowing policy makers to track trends and respond accordingly.

Another measure Barnes proposed would require school officials not only to track all sex assault reports, but also make this information available on a dedicated website. Schools would also be forced to alert incoming students to these rates in a series of registered mailings.

Teffenhart, with the Coalition Against Sexual Assault, worries that these bills go too far, forcing a victim to talk about – even if just in a report to school officials – a highly traumatic experience. Plus, this would set a different reporting standard for crimes committed on campus than for those that occur in the communities outside, where crime victims of any kind are not forced to go to authorities.)

“There’s an overwhelming theory that college campuses are trying to sweep things under the rug, and if we involve law enforcement, it will get better,” she said. But, with 98 percent of rapists never doing time, the evidence is questionable, she said.

“We can’t support legislation that tramples on survivors rights just because we realize that there are institutions that are not addressing sexual assault correctly,” Teffenhart said. “There have to be other solutions … and it has to be survivor led.”

Barnes said that his proposal doesn’t require a victim to pursue prosecution, or even an investigation -- just to alert campus authorities, who then must contact local police. If a victim did want to proceed, he said police and prosecutors have a team of professionals in place to properly process evidence, connect with medical and counseling services, and more. ()

His proposals are similar to a federal bill, sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), among others, which requires schools to create formal agreements with local police and to have trained staff on campus to help victims. But the federal measure doesn’t require victims to come forward, Teffenhart said, where the Barnes bill does; Barnes noted that victims aren’t forced to talk to police, just to tell a campus official.

“New Jersey is really known for having survivor-centered responses to sex assault,” Teffenhart said. “We need to protect that.”

With nearly two-thirds of sex assaults still unreported -- both on campus and off -- and the vast majority of attackers unpunished, both Teffenhart and Barnes agreed the problem deserves more attention. Barnes said he will continue to push his legislative proposals to ensure school officials track and report incidents, and work with law enforcement to catch and punish offenders.

“You should never base policy on anecdotal evidence,” Barnes said -- underscoring the importance of collecting accurate, statewide statistics on campus sex assaults – but he said the stories he has heard about one Rutgers student, the subject of five complaints, were worrisome enough. “We’ve had situations in New Jersey where the same young man is involved in multiple assaults,” he said, adding that law enforcement hasn’t had the details or the tools to take action.

Lilo H. Stainton is an award-winning reporter who covered politics and public policy in New Jersey for more than a decade and later served as press secretary to Gov. Jon S. Corzine. She has also worked as a communications strategist, campaign director, and advocate for coastal protection in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

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