As colleges and universities throughout Massachusetts gear up for the return of their students, advocates for a bill that aims to gather better information about the prevalence of campus sexual assault are ready to continue their push.
A bill that would have created a task force to develop such a survey and then required all colleges and universities Massachusetts to put out a version of it to their students every two years faltered in the final hours of formal sessions for the year after the House and Senate took different approaches, leaving its prospects murky.
Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat who filed the original version of the bill in the House, said the work supporters put in over the past year "is not in vain."
"At the end of the day, this legislation is about protecting students, and I'm confident that the momentum we created this session will carry the bill forward, whether it be informal or formal," Ehrlich told the News Service, saying she'd "definitely" pursue the issue again in the new term that begins in January.
The bill (H 4810) cleared the House unanimously on July 25, six days before the final formal session of the two-year legislative term on July 31, by which point lawmakers try to wrap up major business. The House and Senate will meet in informal sessions for the rest of the year, when any one legislator can block a bill.
Introducing the bill on the floor, Rep. John Scibak, the House chair of the Higher Education Committee, said campus sexual violence is "a problem that hasn't ended, and a problem that we need to address."
"The first step to solve the problem is to understand it," said Scibak, a South Hadley Democrat whose district includes parts of the UMass Amherst campus. "To collect data on the incidence of sexual assault will help our Massachusetts colleges and universities enhance their programming and support services for students."
Under the House bill, schools would be required to conduct the sexual misconduct climate surveys beginning in August 2019, after a task force develops a model survey designed to gather information, including the number of reported incidents of sexual misconduct on campus, student awareness of related policies, and what happens after a victim reports sexual misconduct.
"The reason for the task force is there are many ways to ask a question," Ehrlich said. "Questions can be asked in a way that lead to a certain answer. They can be asked in a way that you may not get as direct an answer as possible. It'll be the work of the task force to make sure that questions are asked in a way that they are as free as possible from bias."
Ehrlich and Scibak both described the bill to their colleagues as a "first step" in combating sexual assault on campuses.
When the bill hit the Senate floor for deliberation around 11 p.m. on July 31, Sen. Michael Moore, the Senate chair of the Higher Education Committee, urged his colleagues to "send to the House a comprehensive approach dealing with sexual assaults."
Moore offered an amendment to the bill that added in elements of a broader campus sexual assault bill the Senate passed in November, including requirements that students be trained annually on sexual violence prevention and that each college and university designate a "confidential resource advisor" who can provide students information on available reporting options, counseling and medical services after an assault.
"This is only one aspect or initiative to deal with sexual assaults on college campuses," Moore, a Millbury Democrat, said of the House bill. "My amendment to this legislation includes sections of legislation passed by the Senate back in November, not seven days ago. As I said back then, on the surface this legislation deals with sexual assaults on college campuses. To me, this deals with those issues and more important issues. This represents how the schools are going to protect and serve some of the most precious people in the lives of parents and families, our children."
After adopting the amendment, the Senate passed its version of the bill, which is now before the House Committee on Bills in Third Reading.
A spokeswoman for Speaker Robert DeLeo said the House had "productive conversations with members and advocates" over the past year, and that DeLeo plans to continue those talks.
Members of the Every Voice Coalition, which pushed for the climate survey bill and also supports the Senate's campus sexual assault bill, said they hope a version can pass in an informal session before the end of the year and, if not, expect it to become law within the next two to four years.
"It's just about trying to figure out what can we all work towards to find a solution that works for everybody, and hopefully keep pressing on this issue because it's not like one bill or one idea is going to solve this incredibly complex problem," John Gabrieli said.
Genevieve Rogers said the coalition has worked with lawmakers, local organizations and national groups to build support for the climate survey bill. A highlight of that effort, she said, was an April rally that brought more than 200 students from 20 different colleges to the State House.
"That was just the tip of the iceberg. Those were just the students who didn't have class that day," Rogers said. She said, "If it doesn't pass, we are still here. We are not going anywhere."