How Massachusetts New Campus Safety Act Could Revolutionize How Sexual Violence against Students Is Reported
In January 2021, Massachusetts’ Governor Charlie Baker signed the state’s new Campus Safety Act into law. The Act addresses sexual violence on college and university campuses and includes measures to prevent, report, and respond to sexual assaults and other forms of sexual violence.
Although Massachusetts’ new Campus Safety Act mostly overlaps with federal legislation such as Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Violence Against Women Act, it places several additional obligations on colleges and universities. Without doubt, the most significant obligation is the requirement to conduct anonymous sexual misconduct campus climate surveys and publish the results.
The objective of this requirement – according to Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago – is to “usher in a new era of transparency”. Writing in the department’s newsletter, Dr. Santiago said: “Our most vulnerable students, including recent immigrants, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities, are at greater risk of sexual assault and less likely to report it”.
The Issue of Underreporting Sexual Assault
Unfortunately, it is not just vulnerable students who are less likely to report sexual assault. In 2020, the Association of American Universities (AAU) published the results of its largest ever campus climate survey. The report identified significant increases in nonconsensual sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking, and sexual harassment since the previous survey in 2015.
Yet, despite the increases, only 11.2% of victims reported the crime to campus or local police. Victim support resources believe this is because of factors such as fears the incident will not be kept confidential, not wishing to get the perpetrator into trouble, concerns the process will be too emotionally difficult and/or that nobody will believe them. However, a report prepared for the National Institute of Justice found the top six reasons for not reporting a sexual assault were:
- Not having proof that the incident occurred,
- Fear of retaliation by the perpetrator,
- Fear of hostile treatment by the authorities,
- Uncertainty that the authorities would consider the incident serious enough,
- Not knowing how to report the incident, and
- Desire to prevent family and others from learning about it.
The Issue of Clery Act Underreporting
The issue of underreporting sexual assault by students makes it difficult for colleges and universities to produce meaningful campus criminal statistics as required by the Clery Act. However, if 11.2% of victims report sexual violence to campus authorities, there is a significant disconnect between the number of Clery Act crimes committed each year and the number of Clery Act crimes reported.
In 2015, the American Psychological Association published a paper demonstrating that colleges and universities reported an average of 44% more Clery Act crimes in years they were being audited for Clery Act compliance, while in 2017, the AAU revealed 89% of the eleven thousand campuses that had submitted Clery Act reports disclosed zero incidents of rape.
The issue of Clery Act underreporting has recently been exacerbated by an update to the FSA Campus Safety Handbook which revises the definitions of Clery geography, Clery crimes, and Campus Security Authorities (to whom Clery crimes must be reported). While the update has the intention of “reducing the regulatory burden”, the potential exists for further underreporting.
How the New Campus Safety Act Will Attempt to Address Underreporting
Massachusetts new Campus Safety Act will attempt to address underreporting in multiple ways. Firstly, all newly-enrolled students and newly-hired employees will have to undergo mandatory sexual misconduct prevention and awareness training, during which the reporting of crimes to a “confidential resource provider” will be encouraged.
Each college and university will be required to develop sexual misconduct policies and procedures which have to be displayed on its website and distributed among students and staff. These will include details of how to report on- and off-campus sexual misconduct to campus and local police – who will have their roles and responsibilities defined in a memorandum of understanding.
With regards to the requirement to conduct anonymous sexual misconduct campus climate surveys and publish the results, surveys must be conducted at least once every four years. While the length of time between surveys is unfortunate, it will at least help identify trends in the number of crimes reported to authorities compared to the number of crimes appearing in Clery Act reports.
How Technology Can Help Institutions Meet Campus Safety Act Requirements
As the objective of the new Massachusetts Campus Safety Act is to “usher in a new era of transparency” colleges and universities will be under close scrutiny to monitor compliance with the Act. While this may increase the regulatory burden the FSA update was attempting to reduce, there are technology solutions institutions can take advantage of to help meet the Act’s requirements.
Student safety apps for example can empower students to report crimes to the designated on-campus confidential resource provider or off-campus law enforcement. The apps can also be configured to provide anonymous tip texting services for when students are concerned the process will be too emotional for them or when they fear retaliation or hostile treatment.
Furthermore, in addition to acting as repositories for sexual misconduct policies and procedures, the apps could be integrated with a mass notification platform and used as a vehicle through which to conduct anonymous campus climate surveys. Together with the new Campus Safety Act, these solutions could revolutionize how sexual violence against students is reported and how campuses are made safer. For further information about these solutions, do not hesitate to get in touch.