Gov. Wolf unveils legislation to combat sexual assaults on college campuses

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(Photo: PA Governor’s Office)

WJET/WFXP/ — Governor Wolf unveiled legislation Monday to help combat sexual assaults on college campuses.

During a news conference, Governor Tom Wolf unveiled a four-bill package that will further strengthen protections for students and combat sexual assaults on campuses.

“We have made a lot of progress in combatting sexual violence and harassment in schools, but we need to do more to ensure all of our students are safe,” said Gov. Wolf. “These four legislative proposals are the next step to preventing assaults and violence and ensuring victims get the help they deserve.

“I commend the legislators joining me in this fight and urge the leadership in the General Assembly to quickly take this legislation up for a vote and send it to my desk.”

The governor was joined at the capitol news conference by students, legislators and the national leader of It’s On Us, a movement fighting against sexual assault on college campuses for both men and women.

Four-bill package:

Enact a ‘yes means yes’ law that would require all postsecondary institutions to have policies with clear standards of what is and is not consent.

Schools also must have sexual violence awareness programs and agreements with local rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs so survivors get the academic, living and other accommodations that can help them stay in school.  (SB 730, sponsored by Sen. Amanda Cappelletti and HB 1489, sponsored by Rep. Brian Sims)

“It is imperative that we take steps to prevent sexual violence on campuses and more fully support the victims when it does happen,” said Sen. Amanda Cappelletti. “The bill that I am introducing with Senators Muth and Collett provides clear standards of what consent is, and is not, and would ensure students know where they can access resources in the event of an assault by requiring agreements with local rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs. I’m glad we are working together to comprehensively support the students of Pennsylvania.”

“Not only do we need to greatly increase the support for survivors of sexual assault, we need comprehensive and inclusive education on consent,” said Rep. Brian Sims. “Educating kids before they arrive on college campuses is the number one way that we can reduce the instances of sexual violence. The children, young people and citizens of Pennsylvania deserve it.”

Ari Fromm, a PA State Director for the Every Voice Coalition and University of Pennsylvania student added, “All too often, student survivors are left on their own to figure out what they need, to help themselves heal through trauma while also managing their education and everything else that college entails. This is the first step to addressing survivor dropout. This bill is a chance to take action.”

Strengthen protections for victims of on-campus crime by requiring the schools to inform victims of their rights and services and to provide protective accommodations or protective measures, if requested by the victim. (SB 909, sponsored by Sen. Steve Santarsiero and HB 1699, sponsored by Rep. Karen Boback)

“Sexual assault and domestic violence remain a problem on college campuses,” said Sen. Steve Santarsiero. “Our institutions of higher education have both the opportunity and responsibility to provide support and reasonable accommodations to students who have been the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. My legislation, Senate Bill 909, will require colleges and universities to inform students of the rights, accommodations, and protective measures available to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.”   

“As a former educator and adjunct professor, this is an extremely important issue,” said Rep. Karen Boback. “I joined the administration with the ‘It’s on Us’ campaign by introducing legislation to extend protections for victims of crime on college campuses across our Commonwealth. I look forward to seeing this legislation move forward, as October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month as well.” 

Teach middle and high school students to know and prevent dating violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking. While the Crime Victims Act outlines requirements for expelling a student for an assault on school grounds, this bill requires schools to provide preventative education for students in grades 7-12.

This will help students to recognize and stop harmful and dangerous behaviors, relationships and situations, and better prepare young people before they arrive on college campuses. (SB 785, sponsored by Sen. Judith Schwank and HB 1490, sponsored by Rep. Jessica Benham)

“Pennsylvania has had success working with colleges and universities to establish sexual violence reporting systems that ensure all students feel comfortable coming forward,” said Sen. Judy Schwank. “However, we need to continue this work and start addressing this issue before students reach college campuses. SB 785 would require schools to teach 7th through 12th grade students to identify and prevent dating violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and stalking to help equip young people with these important skills. These measures are proactive and will allow Pennsylvania to continue to make progress on this issue.”

“It’s on all of us to make sure that every student, regardless of who they are, feels safe and protected on their campus, as well as across the Commonwealth, and has the resources and support they need to succeed,” said Rep. Jessica Benham.

Create a task force to study sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking in grades 6-12 and postsecondary institutions. The Joint State Government Commission would conduct the study to better understand student experiences and improve response efforts. (SR 122, sponsored by Sen. Vince Hughes and HR 108, sponsored by Rep. Carol Hill-Evans)

“The adoption of the ‘It’s on Us’ campaign has been a bright spot for combatting sexual assault and relationship violence at postsecondary institutions across the Commonwealth,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes. “Unfortunately, the lack of uniform standards has led to an uneven and inconsistent response among institutions of higher education. The General Assembly needs to adopt Senate Resolution 122 so that we may improve performance and establish consistent responses to sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking.”

“As a society we must understand the physical, mental, and emotional toll the trauma of sexual assault has on each individual,” said Rep. Carol Hill-Evans. “That is why in June I introduced HR 108, which directs the Joint State Government Commission to conduct a study on the impact of sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking on Commonwealth students enrolled in grades 6 through 12 and beyond. We simply must begin having these discussions earlier in our students’ educational experience with the hope of having a positive impact as they transition to postsecondary institutions and through life. Thank you to Governor Wolf for his statewide initiative following the national It’s On Us campaign to involve everyone in preventing sexual assault.”

The first several weeks of the fall semester is commonly referred to as the “Red Zone” when sexual assault increases, especially among freshman women.

According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 418,000 victims of sexual violence under age 18 in Pennsylvania.

Nationwide, one in three female victims experience rape between the ages of 11 and 17 and one in four male victims experiencing rape before the age of 10.

“I am proud to stand here today with Governor Wolf, Pennsylvanian Students, and the legislators who will carry these bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature,” said Tracey Vitchers, executive director, It’s On Us. “These bills would strengthen the rights of students, and require colleges and universities, as well as K-12 schools across the commonwealth to do better by our youth and young adults. By passing these critical pieces of legislation we will make strides to prevent sexual assault and protect the rights of student survivors across the commonwealth.”

“The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape is grateful to join Governor Wolf in support of survivors of campus sexual assault. The It’s On Us legislative package will help strengthen sexual assault prevention and response on college campuses throughout the state and ensure students impacted by sexual assault and abuse have access to the support of rape crisis centers,” said Karen Baker, CEO, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

The Pennsylvania Commission for Women released the following statement in support of the It’s On Us legislative package:

“The Pennsylvania Commission for Women is grateful for this new legislation that will help mitigate sexual misconduct on campus. This legislation has the power to protect so many young women and students who are at risk,” said Pennsylvania Commission for Women Executive Director, Moriah Hathaway. “We are proud to support the It’s On US PA campaign and encourage everyone to take the pledge. We will continue to work with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly to advocate for women and girls in Pennsylvania.”

“The Pennsylvania Commission for Women has proudly stood alongside Governor Wolf since 2016 when he first rolled out the It’s On Us PA initiative,” said Pennsylvania Commission for Women Chair, Randi Teplitz. “Because Governor Wolf has prioritized this issue during his administration, we have witnessed a culture shift in awareness and attitudes surrounding sexual violence and have received a strong message that sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated.  We are proud to continue to stand with Governor Wolf as he persists in his fight for the resources that our colleges and universities need to best protect their students.”

“For those of us who work in rape crisis and domestic violence centers, especially near college campuses, the beginning of a new school year is a time of concern. We see first-hand the rise in sexual assaults as students return to campus and our staff and volunteers work tirelessly to be available to provide advocacy and support for victims. Governor Wolf’s long-time and consistent support of survivors of sexual and relationship violence, seen clearly in his leadership in implementing the It’s On Us projects throughout the Commonwealth, has been critical to our ability to provide the services that victims need. The legislation introduced today goes even further as we all work to create a climate that believes survivors, creates communities of support for survivors, and begins to lay the groundwork to prevent sexual and relationship violence before they happen. Ending sexual and relationship violence takes all of us working at multiple levels – at the policy level in Harrisburg, within local schools and universities, to the staff and volunteers of local programs who answer hotlines and work with victims every day.  We are grateful to have the leadership of Governor Wolf and state legislators as we continue this work,” said Commissioner and Executive Director of Centre Safe, Anne Ard.

“The It’s On Us legislation promotes prevention through a variety of means, which is incredibly important. Sexual victimization of all kinds is often a factor in long-lasting behavioral health difficulties – PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance use and suicidality. Preventing victimization is promoting health and well-being, and it’s possible when all of us have the information and tools to do so,” said Commissioner and Deputy Secretary of the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Kristen Houser.

Pennsylvania Commission for Women

In 2019, the governor signed two major laws from his It’s On Us campaign. The laws require colleges to provide an anonymous online option for students to report sexual assaults and protection for students reporting sexual assault from being disciplined for violating school drug, alcohol or other policies.

The governor has also provided $5 million in It’s On Us grants to 190 public and private post-secondary schools to help change the culture on campus. The Department of Education is accepting applications for grants up to $30,000 through October 20, 2021.

Everyone is encouraged to take the It’s On Us PA pledge to play a role in ending sexual assault.

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