Massachusetts legislature considering two campus sexual assault bills

Title IX Coordinator Rankin: MIT supports overall concept but wants some adjustments

Two bills pertaining to campus sexual assault, S.2203 and H.4159, are currently before the Massachusetts state legislature. MIT administrators, the Undergraduate Association, and the Graduate Student Council have expressed their support for these bills, with a few reservations.

S.2203, entitled An Act relative to sexual violence on higher education campuses, was introduced in the Massachusetts Senate last November, which approved and passed the bill to the House Ways and Means Committee, where it is still under consideration.

This bill requires all post-secondary degree-granting institutions in Massachusetts to “adopt a policy on dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.”

The policy, which must be publicly accessible online, is required to include detailed information on the school’s reporting and grievance procedures, as well as descriptions of what emergency assistance, counseling, and other support resources are available to students and employees.

The GSC “strongly support[s]” this bill, according to a statement emailed to The Tech, as its passage would “contribute to a decrease in sexual violence on college campuses” and “result in a safer graduate student experience.”

Sarah Rankin, MIT’s Title IX coordinator, said in an interview with The Tech Friday that the bill builds on MIT’s work in developing a response to sexual misconduct and other forms of gender discrimination over the past several years. “I think it’s really positive to see that much of that will be codified in state law,” Rankin added.

However, there are areas of the bills — aspects that unintentionally create problems for MIT and other institutions — that she would like to see revised, Rankin continued.

The section with the largest potential impact on MIT, according to Rankin, pertains to “responsible employees.”

Presently, most MIT employees — including faculty, residential staff, TAs, and coaches — fall in this category, which means that if they learn of potential cases of student sexual misconduct, they are required to report these to the Title IX Coordinator. (By contrast, employees who are “confidential resources,” such as Mental Health and Counseling, have no reporting obligations.)

Under MIT’s current system, after responsible employees inform Title IX of the incident, Title IX will then follow up with the student to offer assistance and options for next steps.

The bill, as of the most recent version Rankin has seen, would instead require that the employee themselves provide much of this information to the student.

Given that MIT has “upwards of five to ten thousand” responsible employees, “our ability to train every single person to remember all the information that they have to provide would be really challenging,” Rankin said. This shift in expectations might thus limit the number of employees MIT is able to maintain in the “responsible” category, which could have negative consequences.  

Many of the other provisions in the bill will not affect MIT because they are already in alignment with MIT’s current policy, Rankin said.

For example, the bill will require that schools use a “preponderance of evidence” standard (which essentially means “more likely than not,” Rankin explained) to determine whether a student is responsible for violating its sexual misconduct policies. MIT has always used this standard, Rankin said.

The “preponderance” standard is less stringent than the “clear and convincing” criteria that the U.S. Department of Education, in a reversal of previous guidelines, currently permits schools to use.

Indeed, S.2203 can be interpreted as an attempt to maintain Obama-era campus sexual assault regulations and protections at the state level in light of shifts in federal policy under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has sought to expand the rights of accused students.

As for how this might affect MIT’s ability to know whether to comply with state or federal law in situations where they conflict, Rankin said there are no “blanket rules”; rather, they will need to rely on legal analysis for specific circumstances.

Overall, the UA and the GSC “agree with the concerns raised by the MIT Title IX Office, and we shared these concerns with the organizers at Every Voice and legislatures we met with,” UA President Sarah Melvin ’18 wrote in an email to The Tech.

Every Voice is a liberal coalition that organized a rally in support of the bills April 10; approximately 15 MIT students were in attendance, according to Melvin.  

H.4159, entitled Resolve creating a task force on sexual misconduct climate surveys for colleges and universities in Massachusetts, was introduced in the Joint Committee on Higher Education in January.

The aim of these surveys is “to determine the prevalence and perception of sexual misconduct among community members of colleges and universities in the commonwealth,” according to the text of the bill.

On this front, MIT conducted a Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault (CASA) survey in 2014 to gather information on students’ opinions and experiences with regard to different types of social behavior and sexual situations, including those that were nonconsensual. MIT plans to administer this survey again in the next academic year, according to Rankin.

“Our survey was very, very comprehensive, and we were one of the first schools to do a massive climate survey in 2014 and then make the data public,” Rankin said. As a result, MIT would probably be involved in the process of making a standardized survey for Massachusetts institutions, if that is what the bill ultimately requires.

Melvin wrote that the UA supports this bill, as the CASA survey data has been “very helpful in guiding discussions around policy and prevention programing at MIT.”

The GSC also supports the bill, according to its statement.

However, the GSC is also urging the addition of two amendments that it believes would improve the survey’s effectiveness: first, to provide “a specification of periodicity,” such as by requiring that the survey be issued at least every three years, and second, to have each school report its results to the Committee on Higher Education in the interest of accountability.

A previous version of the bill (H.2998) required an annual survey, which Rankin said would have posed difficulties, given the lengthiness and sensitive nature of the CASA questions.

MIT has been working with legislators, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM), and other universities on both of these bills, according to Sarah Gallop, co-director of the Office of Community and Government Relations.

“There are a limited number of legislators who actually have colleges and universities in their districts, so it's important for MIT and others to take the time to share experiential and practical feedback so that all lawmakers can understand the nuances of any proposed legislation,” Gallop wrote in an email to The Tech.

Rankin explained, “We’ve been working on the bills, and we’re in general very supportive of … the big picture and spirit of them. We are hopeful that there are little adjustments that can be made that we are working with AICUM, and AICUM is working with others [on].”