New Rutgers-inspired bills tackle sexual assault at all New Jersey colleges and universities

By Nicole Gifford

Rutgers University students and staff say state bills modeled on the school’s anti-sexual assault programs could make a difference at other colleges and universities in New Jersey.

Bill S-2382, which would create a “New Jersey Sexual Assault Violence in Education Act (NJ SAVE),” stipulates that colleges must establish on-campus theatre groups modeled on Rutgers’ “Students Challenging Realities and Educating against Myths (SCREAM)” program, which offers educational dramatic productions about sexual assault.

Five anti-sexual assault bills were discussed at an Oct. 16 state Senate meeting, which included testimony from three Rutgers experts.

The bills, presented by State Sen. Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex), are a response to the newly high-profile campus sexual assault debate spurred by President Obama’s “It’s on Us” campaign and the federal Campus Safety and Accountability act proposed by Senator Claire McCaskill.

The legislation is also a reaction to Princeton University’s status as one of 53 colleges across the country currently under investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases.

According to the Rutgers Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance (VPVA) website, SCREAM was established in 1991 so that every incoming first-year student would participate in an interactive educational program about sexual violence.

SCREAM performs at all new student orientation programs and reaches approximately 5,000 students per year.

Prevention education coordinator Brady Root, who works with VPVA to administer SCREAM presentations, says that their clinically proven peer education techniques are so effective because of their basis in reality and visual demonstration.

“We have students educating other students about interpersonal violence through improv,” Root said. “It’s more engaging than other programs, and it takes away the stigma around discussing the issues.”

Root says that SCREAM programs on sexual violence, which include an eight-character skit and in-character question and answer session, offers audiences the opportunity to understand a variety of perspectives on victim-blaming, witnessing crimes, and avoiding violent situations.

“The characters are able to have a conversation with the audience,” Root said. “Instead of just showing them a PowerPoint, audiences can actually ask questions about what they saw and really consider, ‘well, what would I do if I were in that situation?’”

Kathleen Joyce, 19, a sexual health advocate for Rutgers Health, Outreach, Promotion and Education (HOPE) who facilitates programs on campus about topics including consent, safe partying, and contraception, finds that SCREAM theater presentations at orientation are a powerful way to convey necessary preventative information about sexual assault.

“Fighting sexual assault takes more than providing proper assistance to victims,” Joyce said. “It also includes drawing attention to it, raising awareness, and providing education to people on how to help combat it.”

Root says that implementing programs like SCREAM across the state will augment the organization’s existing work with other colleges.

“SCREAM has already been going to other schools’ orientations for years,” Root said. “But it would really be incredible if other schools build programs that they would have year-round, like we have at Rutgers, so that they could keep the education going.”

Five anti-sexual assault bills were discussed at an Oct. 16 state Senate meeting, which included testimony from three Rutgers experts.

The bills, presented by State Sen. Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex), are a response to the newly high-profile campus sexual assault debate spurred by President Obama’s “It’s on Us” campaign and the federal Campus Safety and Accountability act proposed by Senator Claire McCaskill.

The legislation is also a reaction to Princeton University’s status as one of 53 colleges across the country currently under investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases.

While she is supportive of new state initiatives inspired by Rutgers programs, Joyce expressed concerns that financial penalties may be counter-productive.

“A lot of universities have become to function and appear as just another ‘big business,’ making ‘paying’ their way out of legal and publicity matters more and more common,” Joyce said.

Under bill S-2317, colleges must report allegations of sexual assault to law enforcement authorities. According the current New Jersey Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights, victims have the right to choose whether or not they want to report allegations to the police.

Bill S-2357 requires that institutions appoint a victim’s advocate for the duration of any sexual assault case’s investigation, which Joyce says would be helpful to students grappling with sexual violence.

“Advocates are trained and educated on the rights of sexual assault victims, their university’s policies on sexual assault, and the recourses and options available,” Joyce said.

Beyond accompanying victims to the hospital and medical appointments, helping them report the crime, and bringing them to their counseling appointments, advocates provide an all-encompassing sense of security.

“Many sexual assault victims say that they feel alone in it, or that they cannot confide about it in their friends, because they don’t understand,” Joyce said. “An advocate provides an unbiased, unfamiliar, empathetic person who will ‘hold their hand’ through the extremely difficult process.”

If bill S-2358 passed, all colleges would be required to provide hard copies of the previous year’s crime statistics to any student applying to their school. All allegations of sexual assault made by students and employees also must be made available on the college’s website.

Rutgers has also partnered with the White House and the Department of Justice to administer a campus climate survey assessing student perception of sexual violence.

In an October USA Today op-ed, Rutgers University President Robert Barchi stated that campus sexual assault is a priority for the university and that the federal partnership is much more than “just another study.”

“An assessment like this provides the information necessary to help shape education, training, and services to prevent sexual violence and respond to campus sexual assaults when they happen,” Barchi wrote.

“Gaining a better understanding how our community thinks about interpersonal relationships, about sexual violence and about how colleges and universities should address these issues is a fundamental step in how we tailor our resources, training and support systems to educate and protect our students.”

Joyce is in agreement with Barchi that Rutgers has “led the way” in confronting campus sexual violence, and despite the prevalence of the issue at Rutgers, the resources provided to victims are excellent.

“I feel as though Rutgers University does a lot to try and combat sexual assault on campus,” Joyce said.  “There is a reason that Rutgers was one of the models for sexual assault cases in revising the federal policies.”

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