Plattsburgh State recently revised its sexual violence and sexual harassment policy in order to better serve survivors of sexual violence on campus and keep them safe.
Part of this comes in the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Enough is Enough legislation, which was signed in July 2015. A news release from Cuomo’s office said that this bill will require private colleges to provide “a uniform definition of affirmative consent” and to define consent as a “knowing, voluntary and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity.”
The bill also grants students who come forward amnesty from certain campus policy violations, such as drug or alcohol use.
“New York is making a clear and bold statement: Sexual violence is a crime, and from now on in this state it will be investigated and prosecuted like one,” Cuomo said in the release.
The bill mandates a Students’ Bill of Rights be enforced statewide, and campuses must also provide each of their students with that information. The idea behind it is so that survivors of sexual violence may know the resources available to them. The bill mandates training for college administrators, faculty and staff and requires campuses to annually submit data of cases — and evidence of the college’s handling of these instances — to the state education department. PSUC Students’ Bill of Rights is available online at the college’s Title IX website.
“If somebody comes forward to report stalking, domestic violence, dating violence or sexual violence, there are certain things that I, as a Title IX coordinator, must offer them or University Police must offer them,” PSUC Title IX Coordinator Butterfly Blaise said, citing the Students’ Bill of Rights. “If they want to get linked to counseling services, health services; say they need accommodation in a classroom because the person who harmed them is in that same classroom, we can make accommodations there.”
Blaise said PSUC must offer anonymous reporting either over the phone or online via a form.
PSUC Health Educator and Outreach Coordinator Rhema Lewis acts as the confidential advocate for survivors of sexual, dating or domestic violence or stalking.
“That means that I support a student who chooses to come forward and report being assaulted,” Lewis said.
“My job is to provide as many resources to that person as possible and give them the options. Because I’m a confidential advocate, that means if the person just wants to come and talk and at least feel like someone knows what’s happening, they can come and do that. That information stays with me.”
Lewis said if a student wishes to identify the perpetrator and report his or her identity on the campus record, then she would point the person in the direction of either Blaise or University Police.
Blaise said only mental health counselors at the Student Health and Counseling Center and Lewis act as confidential resources on campus.
However, survivors are not limited to one option when they report. Blaise said, in a hypothetical situation involving two students, the survivor may file criminal charges with the University Police department, judicial charges with the Student Conduct and Judicial Affairs Office or file charges with both offices.
A student may also report the incident directly to Blaise, and that would start a Title IX investigation as to whether the alleged perpetrator violated that student’s rights. Blaise said that confidential reports to Lewis would be counted as part of the annual submission to the state education department.
Blaise said in an email that the total number of sexual violence or stalking crimes for the fall 2015 semester totals 51: 13 cases of rape; 10, domestic and dating violence; 10, sexual harassment; nine, sexual assault; six, stalking; three, sextortion — defined by the FBI as a “serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors or money.”
That total more than triples the total of instances of sexual violence and sexual assault from the fall 2014 to spring 2015 semesters, which can be found on the PSUC Title IX website: 15. However, Blaise said this does not necessarily indicate more instances of crime, but rather an increased comfortability with survivors being able to report these crimes to the proper authorities.
James Kennedy, a PSUC public relations major with a minor in legal studies, said he doesn’t think a majority of PSUC students know about the support system that is in place for survivors of sexual violence. Kennedy is the president of the Interfraternity Council, one of the governing bodies of Greek life on the PSUC campus.
“To really try and educate people on what’s around, that’s a different kind of campaign that needs to be addressed because I don’t think it has been,” Kennedy said. “That support is there, but it’s useless if no one knows about it.”
Kennedy, as IFC president, hopes to include bystander intervention training to new member education processes of campus fraternities. He believes PSUC could be doing more to handle the scope of sexual violence on campus, such as building an office on campus to directly handle matters of sexual violence and acting as a more direct resource for the students.
“If you look at the numbers, we’re really just ignoring sexual assault on campuses, and yes, we have these resources, but no one’s comparing that to the size and the scope of what this issue is, and if every office was related to how important it was, then that should be one of the biggest in the school,” he said.
University Police Chief Jerry Lottie said that educating the campus community about the support system that is currently in place for survivors is “a constant, ongoing effort.”
“We have officers who do that as part of their assignment, to talk to students and to explain to them reporting options, to make this process more user-friendly, so more and more people are willing to come forward and report,” Lottie said. “Hopefully, with those reports, we’ll be able to address the situation and reduce the number of incidences that occur on campus.”
Blaise said the decision to update the policy came not only from the Enough is Enough bill, but from the decision of two committees that used to make up the now-defunct Presidential Task Force, designed to find a way to fight sexual violence and stalking on campus.
“We wanted to create a model of what other campuses would look at as being best practice in regard to working on these issues on our campus,” she said.
Blaise said the committees decided to go beyond state measures and introduce outreach events like tabling and working with the outside community. Blaise said the campus community needs to work to normalize the conversation about sexual violence on campus.
“The narrative has to change,” Blaise said. “You shouldn’t feel shame or guilt to go to University Police or the Title IX office to report something that was done to you. Our community should be encouraging it.”
Email Tim Lyman at firstname.lastname@example.org