For the second time in six months, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) took part in a round table discussion at the Aloysius P. Kelley Center Presentation Room on Aug. 25 to talk about bipartisan legislation introduced in July that aims to combat sexual assault on college campuses.
Titled “Campus Safety and Accountability Act,” the bill hopes to provide more education for school staffs and more resources for victims of sexual assault. Besides creating a uniform process in dealing with sexual assault cases, the legislation calls for minimum training for those handling the cases, making the data publicly available and most importantly, appointing confidential advisers.
“Your comments and your thinking has helped to shape mine,” Blumenthal said. “I’m here because your input has really been invaluable in this process.” He began by providing a progress report on the legislation, explaining the student suggestions that were implemented, such as needing confidentiality and confidential advisers so that “survivors could make choices.”
According to Dr. Thomas Pellegrino, vice president for student affairs, the legislation is directed primarily to universities and administrators of those universities.
“It has twin goals: safety and accountability,” said Pellegrino, adding that the legislation aims to create “assault-free campuses,” a goal that all universities should share. The legislation also calls for a regular, confidential survey of students, which Pellegrino hopes students will respond to candidly.
When asked what might have brought Blumenthal back to Fairfield, Pellegrino praised the level of student engagement as being “candid and thoughtful,” saying that Blumenthal “really took to heart the need for confidential advisers.”
Blumenthal began his talk thanking Fairfield for stepping forward and being at the “forefront, unflinchingly and courageously.”
Referring to the room full of student leaders, which included resident assistants and members of Fairfield University’s Student Association, Blumenthal said, “This picture is worth all words. It shows how much you care for other people.”
During his hour-long talk, he discussed the issue of under-reporting, saying that the purpose of the legislation includes encouraging more reporting by making the system more effective so that people come forward.
Referring to Fairfield as “a part of any other college,” Program Coordinator Daniel Jones ’13 said, “We wouldn’t have to talk about sexual assault as aggressively as we do if there wasn’t potential for an issue.” While not everyone is “directly involved,” Jones added that there is “pressure not to talk about” sexual assault or violence.
In his May report Blumenthal cited Fairfield as one of the top three universities in Connecticut with the best policies in place that prevent sexual assault.
Dean of Students Karen Donoghue ’03, who attended the discussion, stated that Fairfield is “proud to be considered a model institution when it comes to responding to sexual violence on college campuses.”
Blumenthal explained that the bill includes “recommending more training, more services, more funding from the federal government, and more accountability and transparency.” In regards to costs, he explained that they “would be pretty small in comparison to the federal budget, which is in the trillions.”
The response to a sexual assault should involve a “rigorous and fair” process, he said. The legislation would include two penalties: to the student committing the crime and to schools that are not combating the issue or those that are victim blaming, such as cutting funding as an “incentive to do better.”
During his last talk in March, Blumenthal referred to sexual assault as a “societal issue,” saying that it calls for a change in cultural behaviors, a statement he reiterated.
Citing bystander intervention as an important part of Fairfield’s culture, Blumenthal explained that combating sexual assault requires “ultimately a culture change.”
Hoping the bill has a “significant effect and real, real results in diminishing the amount of assaults,” Blumenthal added, “Culture changes. Attitudes change. This will change.”
Fairfield University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., advocated for “peer to peer education” as being the “best way” to reach others on the topic of sexual assault.
Senior Janice Herbert, chair of the Council of Student Organizations, said that while the discussion was “a good conversation starter that had all the student leaders in one place,” future talks need to be more “gender neutral” in not always referring to the victim as “she.”
Joining Blumenthal were: Fairfield First Selectman Michael Tetreau; State Rep. Kim Fawcett; members from the Fairfield Police Department; and Connecticut advocates of sexual assault prevention. Von Arx, Pellegrino and officers from the Department of Public Safety were also in attendance.