Ramesh: Fighting Sexual Violence in New Hampshire

New Hampshire’s state government must take action to protect students and survivors on college campuses.

by Uma Ramesh | 6/26/20 2:00am

When and if college students return to their campuses this fall, they’ll have to grapple with a lot of change tied to COVID-19 and social distancing. Sadly, one thing that will remain the same is the danger of sexual violence. In the United States, approximately 23 percent of undergraduate women and 5 percent of undergraduate men experience sexual assault or rape. With prevalence rates this high, all of us know a survivor of sexual misconduct, whether we’re aware of it or not. That’s why it’s vital that we take action to protect students and survivors on college campuses. The New Hampshire House of Representatives is currently considering a bill that would do just that.

House Bill 705 is a bipartisan legislative package that incorporates multiple bills that address sexual misconduct. It includes “Requiring Institutions of Higher Education to Adopt Policies on Sexual Misconduct,” a bill focused on campus sexual violence that has been advanced by student-run organization Every Voice and retiring New Hampshire state senator Martha Hennessey ’76 (D-Hanover). Key measures within this bill require that all New Hampshire colleges establish campus resources for survivors and promote a culture with zero tolerance for sexual violence. Passing HB 705 would allow “Requiring Institutions of Higher Education … ” to become law, making New Hampshire a national leader in combating sexual misconduct; no state in the country has passed legislation on campus sexual violence that contains all the provisions within Hennessey’s bill. This legislation would also provide critical support to marginalized college students. Black women, other women of color and LGBTQ community members are disproportionately more likely to experience sexual violence. 

If HB 705 were passed, New Hampshire colleges would be required to train students, faculty and staff members on topics related to sexual violence, including consent, reporting procedures and campus resources. This would help create a climate where it’s harder to trivialize or laugh off the issue of sexual violence. As individuals learn more about sexual misconduct, they would become less susceptible to common myths about this issue that lead people to sweep it under the rug. Unfortunately, multiple New Hampshire colleges don’t provide such training to all of their community members, including the University of New Hampshire.  

HB 705 also addresses barriers that prevent survivors from seeking help. In certain New Hampshire universities, such as Saint Anselm College, students can’t access resources for sexual violence without having information about their case reported to Title IX. Many survivors choose not to report their assaults because they feel uncomfortable with their information being reported. As a result, they are unable to access certain campus resources, including academic accommodations and housing changes. Survivors deserve to have their autonomy affirmed at every stage of the reporting process, and that includes having their desires for confidentiality respected. HB 705 would address this issue by requiring all New Hampshire colleges to have at least one confidential resource advisor: a trained professional who could share information about campus resources and wouldn’t be obligated to report anything to Title IX. 

Another barrier that discourages reporting is survivors’ fear that they might be punished if they were violating their college’s code of conduct when they were assaulted. For example, many incidents of campus sexual violence involve underage drinking. HB 705 addresses this fear by requiring colleges to implement an amnesty policy. If implemented, individuals reporting sexual misconduct wouldn’t be punished for other policy violations, with exceptions for certain egregious acts, such as those which place others’ safety at risk. Dartmouth currently has a similar amnesty policy, but other New Hampshire colleges don’t, such as Southern New Hampshire University. This aspect of HB 705 will ensure that colleges focus on what’s most important: supporting students who have experienced trauma. 

While I believe Dartmouth’s policies on sexual violence can be improved, it’s worth noting that Dartmouth is already abiding by many provisions of HB 705. For example, the Sexual Violence Prevention Project currently provides all incoming first-year students with education about sexual misconduct. Additionally, our WISE campus advocate, Bailey Ray, provides support to students who have experienced sexual violence but doesn’t have any obligation to report information to Title IX. However, many students in New Hampshire are enrolled in colleges that don’t offer these protections, as noted above. By advocating for this legislation, we can play a crucial role in supporting other students in our state. Further, HB 705 would entrench existing protections for survivors at Dartmouth, as these protections would then be backed by the force of law; the College would be legally unable to roll them back.

In all, HB 705 would provide vital support for survivors of sexual violence and make campuses safer, particularly for communities targeted by sexual violence at higher rates. If students lobby New Hampshire state legislators in support of this bill, HB 705 has a real chance of being passed. This bill recently passed in New Hampshire’s state senate after a high level of outreach, and it will be up for a vote in the House on June 30. However, its passage is far from guaranteed. Certain representatives have voiced opposition to New Hampshire’s legislative process during the pandemic, which might lead to them blocking HB 705. As a community, it is vital that we raise our voices in support of this bill by contacting our representatives in the New Hampshire House. All students deserve to be safe on campus, and HB 705 would move us closer to that goal. 

Ramesh is a member of the Class of 2020 and a volunteer with Every Voice. 

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