A new phrase is spreading through college campuses at rampant speed: informed consent. Some say it’s a confusing idea that will lead to chaos and false convictions. Students who have been victims of sexual assault say it’s about time.

Having distinguished herself as a student leader and hard worker in high school, Stefanie Jeffreys left for Montclair State University in 2011 blazing with idealism and eager to soak up new experiences. In so many ways, college life lived up to her expectations. Classes were challenging – in a good way – and the Cherry Hill East graduate easily slipped into the Montclair leadership crowd, even meeting her boyfriend Andy through student government.

However, everything changed the night Andy struck her across the face after she resisted his drunken sexual advances.

It still plays out in her head like a moment frozen in time. The two of them were sitting on his bed watching a movie and, by the time she realized she was in trouble, it was too late at night to text friends for a ride back to campus. Most terrifying of all, Andy was intoxicated beyond the point of reasoning. After hitting her, he warned: “You move, and you will regret it,” before leaving the room to use the bathroom. Sobbing, Jeffreys took a chance by heading to the kitchen to ask Andy’s roommate to take her home.

While Jeffreys is convinced the roommate’s intervention saved her from rape or a fate far worse, the torment did not end there. Too stunned to process the ordeal, she went about her days and covered up the substantial bruises with makeup. But then she was victimized again. After Andy told friends the marks were from rough but consensual sex, he and his friends called her a “slut” and “dirty whore” when she ran into them on campus. After four days of this, a friend finally convinced her to go to campus police.

“It did not go well,” says Jeffreys, now 22 and currently enrolled at Camden County College. “They made me feel like it didn’t matter and told me they could not protect me.”

Although the semester was nearly over, Jeffreys left Montclair for good shortly before finals, not completing the first semester of her freshman year.

While she could not bring herself to talk about the assault for several years, Jeffreys has since learned that her experiences – first as a victim of sexual violence and then receiving a lackadaisical response from college administrators – are far too common. Nearly one in five women will be sexually assaulted during her college years, according to several studies. Yet, in 2014, one year after Jeffreys’ harrowing experience, 45 percent of colleges reported zero sexual assaults. Some 95 percent of college presidents said their institutions handle sexual assault “appropriately,” according to a 2014 Gallup poll.

Among the reasons for such artificially low reporting: the vast majority of victims – 88 percent according to some studies – never come forward to lodge a formal complaint. Those brave enough to seek out justice are often not taken seriously or are subject to blame, according to experts.

These jarring facts are highlighted in “The Hunting Ground,” a hard-hitting documentary illuminating the prevalence of sexual violence at American universities. Beyond the statistics, the stories come to vivid life through the chilling testimony of survivors, including some men. While their narratives of rape are harrowing enough, just as gut-wrenching are their accounts of subsequent experiences with college police and administrators.

The film asserts that colleges and universities systematically cover up sexual assaults and, by doing so, fail to protect students from repeat offenders. Several of the women profiled have filed federal lawsuits against their schools for the handling (or mishandling) of rape allegations, citing Title IX, which bans gender discrimination at colleges receiving federal money. In fact, since the White House started naming schools under investigation by the Department of Education in 2014, the list has grown to more than 100 universities – from Harvard and Princeton to the University of California, Berkeley and Washington State University.

“The Hunting Ground” arrived amidst an already brewing heated national discussion about sexual assault on college campuses. Even before its debut, the Obama administration made the issue a priority, releasing guidelines in 2014 on how reports of sexual assault should be addressed.

shutterstock_338776136The movie, which was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 to rave reviews and a standing ovation, has since been screened at the White House, on college campuses – including Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University – and has been submitted for consideration for an Academy Award. Last October, hundreds gathered for a private screening organized by Samost Jewish Family and Children’s Service, which operates Project S.A.R.A.H., a domestic abuse program. In November, it had its national prime-time debut on CNN.

As the filmmakers hoped, “The Hunting Ground” has inspired student activists and lawmakers to push for solutions, including new measures for accountability from colleges and universities. Here in South Jersey, State Senator James Beach (D-Camden) has proposed legislation to combat the issue.

“Parents send their children off to college with expectations that they are going to be safe,” says Beach. “But that’s just not an accurate assumption. We cannot let this epidemic exist any longer without trying to do something about it.”

Beach’s legislation – dubbed “yes means yes” – would require colleges and universities to adopt an “affirmative consent” standard to disputes both on and off campus. The policy defines consent as a conscious, voluntary agreement between partners – given by words or actions. In other words, someone who is drunk, drugged or asleep cannot grant consent, says Hillary Platt, Project S.A.R.A.H. coordinator. Platt leads classes on building healthy relationships for teenagers, including a course for Voorhees Middle School eighth graders.

“Most kids do not realize that consent is not legal when alcohol is involved,” says Platt, who served as a consultant on the bill.

Modeled after similar laws – California adopted “yes means yes” legislation in August and New York’s governor has implemented a similar standard for the State University of New York system – the proposal would tie state funding to compliance.

Besides requiring colleges to provide sexual violence prevention and response education, an amendment Beach plans to introduce would require academic institutions to appoint an advocate who is not on the school’s payroll to advise those who report sexual assault.

“This will take away the possibility that someone will be protecting the reputation of the college or university by sweeping it under the rug,” says Beach.

The legislation, proposed last August, is still under deliberation by the Senate Higher Education Committee. While it has received endorsements from victims’ rights groups, “yes means yes” has its detractors.

Critics argue that affirmative consent shifts the burden of proof to those students accused of sexual offenses, creating a disturbing precedent for government regulation of consensual sex. Some argue the standard will not change the difficulty of figuring out who is telling the truth about a sexual encounter. Hans Bader, a senior attorney with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has noted that the “yes means yes” laws are too broad; under the proposal, consent is required not just for the act of intercourse but all aspects of sexual play and touching. Expecting prior affirmative consent for all erotic activity doesn’t conform to the way people really act, he told the Daily Caller.

In New Jersey, however, affirmative consent as a standard for colleges and universities may make sense, says Margo Kaplan, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Law in Camden.

In criminal matters, she explains, New Jersey courts have already defined rape based on an affirmative consent standard. Even if they did not, she points out, a stricter standard of conduct makes sense here, because disciplinary actions in colleges and universities are not criminal matters. Schools already have different standards for disciplinary proceedings involving infringements to their own rules.

“For example, cheating on an exam is usually not a criminal action, yet schools can discipline you for that because you broke one of their rules,” says Kaplan, who researches criminal law and sex crimes.

These school disciplinary proceedings do not result in prison time or a criminal record.

Still, the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities has come out against the measure. While not stating specific objections, the organization that represents the state’s nine public colleges and universities says the measure is “premature.” The association instead supports the creation of a task force charged with developing recommendations to deal with the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Legislation creating this taskforce, coincidently co-sponsored by Beach on the Senate side, is awaiting Gov. Christie’s signature.

While they may be divided over the best approach to improve campus safety, college officials nowadays are far more likely to acknowledge the prevalence of campus rape than even a few years ago.

Brandon Crowpher, 22 and a senior at Rowan, researched sexual assault policies and education programs at every New Jersey university and college as an intern for Sen. Beach last summer. He notes that while each college provided student resources, some were far more comprehensive than others. Rowan, he says, has one of the most wide-ranging. In addition to requiring all students to take online trainings about laws and university policies regarding sexual assault, harassment and abuse, Rowan faculty has also received training about Title IX.

This fall, Rowan also hired Rhasheda Douglas to manage the Office of Equity and Diversity (OED). Douglas, who most recently worked at the U.S. Office of Civil Rights as an investigative team leader enforcing Title IX, is charged with ensuring the university lives up to the federal mandates.

Moreover, the Glassboro-based school will be hosting the first-ever Title IX conference for New Jersey college students in April. The student-led conference will be an opportunity to develop ways to recognize and prevent sex and gender discrimination as well as harassment, says Lillian Barretto, a senior who became involved last year after bringing to the board of trustees concerns of friends who were assaulted and felt the school wasn’t adequately addressing their allegations.

Barretto, a biochemistry major working as an intern in the OED, says she got “an incredibly great response from the board of trustees.”

“It happens here, but I think it’s a reality at all colleges,” says Barretto, who is from Piscataway. “I do think Rowan is making strides for a more positive environment.”

As for Crowpher, his intern experience coupled with watching the The Hunting Ground and hearing accounts of survivors has been eye-opening and made him more passionate about becoming part of the solution. Along with members of his fraternity house, Alpha Chi Ro (AXP), he distributes information for “It’s On Us,” a national campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault that uses student leaders to spread the message.

With the knowledge that fraternity houses are often viewed as hotbeds of sexual assault, he is arranging to have his entire fraternity house see the documentary before summer break. In addition, awareness of the issues has led to changes in the fraternity’s risk-management system.

“We are more vigilant about situations,” he says. “Even though we trust our guys are doing OK, it doesn’t mean everyone walking into our house is. If a girl looks like she’s in any amount of trouble, one of us will walk up to her and ask if she needs help. Nine times out of 10, she is fine. But for that one time, that girl has been thankful someone was watching out for her.”

At Rutgers-Camden, all students are required to take online training about rape and consent upon starting school. Associate Chancellor Mary Beth Daisey admits that is hard to enforce, but believes most students take it seriously. Rutgers offers other programming throughout the year, as well as ongoing social media campaigns designed to raise awareness about consent and the role bystanders can play in preventing assaults and harassment.

Daisey says education is focused on helping students understand that rape is not always an act of violence, and that there are nuances to relationships. Like at Rowan, student leaders, athletes and fraternity members at Rutgers are involved in the school’s “It’s On Us” campaign.

“It’s a very different world today,” she notes. “We’re always trying to figure out how to explain this on their level.”

January 2016
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