Unfortunately, most people don’t pay attention to state laws. Especially in the current presidential administration, the public and media focus is understandably directed toward federal lawmaking. In some ways, this is a good thing, as the Trump administration should be met with as much criticism and oversight as possible. However, in America’s federalist system, state laws often have a more broad and more direct effect on people’s lives.
Most people believe that state laws are too complex or small in scope to warrant public attention. This apathy about state laws is mirrored in the media, where even local media covers state legislation relatively rarely. State laws are especially influential in terms of welfare, health accessibility, reproductive rights and mass incarceration. For example, despite abortion being legal federally, the entire state of Mississippi only has one abortion clinic, which is routinely attacked by legislation and semi-violent protest. Conversely, there are at least nine abortion providers in Los Angeles County. This means that pregnant women in Mississippi and California will face incredibly different experiences, with the Californian women having much more of an opportunity for choice. State-influenced issues like abortion access tend to deeply affect marginalized people, which is especially important during the Trump administration, as they could work against many of this administration’s more bigoted laws.
In Massachusetts, state laws involving higher education are especially important, since Massachusetts has so many colleges and universities. There is one bill currently in the Massachusetts legislature known as the Act Relative to Sexual Violence on College Campuses, that could have massive benefits for college students if passed.
The Act Relative to Sexual Violence on College Campuses is incredibly comprehensive in its effort to prevent sexual violence and ease the process of reporting it. It covers matters involving sexual assault prevention, counseling, reporting and disciplinary procedures. The bill requires all higher education institutions to provide to students, applicants and staff, upon request, information about sexual assault emergency services, disciplinary procedures, counseling services and survivors’ rights.
It includes that universities must be willing to alter a survivors’ living situation or employment in response to an assault. It also regulates the manner of disciplinary proceedings after an assault, requiring a high degree of confidentiality, prohibiting the use of a survivor or character witness’s past sexual behavior, not allowing a survivor and perpetrator to confront each other in person during the proceedings, and providing the survivor and perpetrator of the school’s decision within seven days of the proceedings.
This eases the psychological stress of the disciplinary process for both the survivor and the accused. For the survivor, the process of recovering from and reporting a sexual assault can be incredibly traumatic. The changes that this bill mandates for disciplinary procedures would make it easier for survivors to recover from this trauma, without hurting the due process of the accused. Furthermore, the bill requires that higher education institutions have a sexual assault and domestic violence crisis center with a professional counselor, which would even further ease the psychological burden of coping with a sexual assault.
Luckily, Brandeis already has a Rape Crisis Center. The RCC is known for being a beacon of hope for sexual assault victims, providing legal guidance and counseling for victims. I personally know many sexual assault survivors who have benefitted from the guidance and security provided by the RCC. If the Act Relative to Sexual Violence on College Campuses is passed, all colleges and universities in the state would have to have a center similar to the RCC. This means that sexual assault survivors will feel less powerless and alone in their fight for security and justice.
Another thing the the bill requires is that universities have yearly bystander trainings. While many people find bystander trainings to be time-consuming and cumbersome, they are critical to maintaining a climate of safety on college campuses. It is easy for people who are not directly affected by sexual assault to forget how common and traumatic sexual violence is. It is also easy to forget any prevention measures that you might have learned during Orientation or at another time in your college career. Yearly bystander trainings take up minimal time and ensure that students are reminded of the seriousness of these issues and means of preventing assaults.
The Act Relative to Sexual Violence on College Campuses is currently in the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Higher Education. The hearing for the bill is on Thursday, April 13. It is important for Massachusetts residents, especially those who are college students, to do what they can to promote this bill. This includes talking to other college students and staff, talking to a Massachusetts state senator or representatives and connecting with local interest groups having to do with sexual assault and domestic violence.