State launches initiative to host campus sexual assault forums in all NJ counties

The statistics are staggering: one out of five female college students has experienced sexual assault on campus. But Rutgers University President Robert Barchi says dig deeper and it gets worse, because one out of four have been sexually abused before they even got to college.

“We can’t solve this problem just on the university campus. We can make an example of how you can deal with it, but if it doesn’t get beyond that, if it doesn’t get back to our communities, if it doesn’t get back to our schools leading up to college, we have not solved the problem,” said Barchi.

An event Thursday was centered around a 2017 report released by the New Jersey Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault. It highlights the need for better responses to and prevention of sexual violence in the higher education community. Co-chair of the task force and head of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Patricia Teffenhart talked about what wasn’t in the report.

“There’s no victim-blaming in the report — clothes don’t rape, parties don’t rape — people rape. And sexual violence is caused by learned behaviors and unacceptable societal attitudes toward violence,” Teffenhart said.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis also spoke about the state’s role in prevention and response, especially in light of the Trump administration’s proposed changes to Title IX, guidelines on how schools respond to sexual assault. Smith Ellis described a Student Bill of Rights that’s part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s new education plan.

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“While we talk often about some of the standard fare that you hear often in higher education — access, affordability, success, quality, which are all very important — we also address an element that’s not often explicitly mentioned when discussing student success. And that is student safety, belonging and support,” said Ellis.

Grewal announced a new initiative called the 21/21 Community Policing Project — 21 counties, 21st century policing that’ll work with students to end sexual violence.

“I’ll be directing 21, all 21 of our county prosecutors to hold community forums focused on campus sexual violence. These events will bring prosecutors and law enforcement onto campuses around the beginning of next school year to meet students and providers where they are, to discuss how we handle campus sexual assault cases and to learn how we can do better,” Grewal said.

Several legislators have sponsored a bill calling for a new task force that would look at the issue of sexual assault from a K-12 perspective and offer recommendations for age-appropriate discussions.

“This will give us an opportunity to help make sure that the students that are entering those institutions have a better foundational understanding of things we discussed here today — consent, bodily autonomy, understanding what it means to say no, what your legal rights and options are if you feel as if you’ve been violated,” said Teffenhart.

The bill to create the task force passed both houses earlier this month and is now waiting on the governor’s desk for a signature. It’ll take at least another year before a new report is released.

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