My Testimony for An Act requiring sexual misconduct climate surveys at institutions of higher education

Today I testified in support of H.1208, An Act requiring sexual misconduct climate surveys at institutions of higher education, which I filed with Senate President Pro Tempore Will Brownsberger. This bill would create a twenty-one member task force to develop a model sexual assault climate survey to issue to students at public and private higher institutions in Massachusetts, free of charge, in order to collect data to better understand and address sexual assault on college campuses.

Sexual assault climate surveys are anonymous by design, generating reliable school-specific data on the nature, prevalence, and students’ attitudes and perceptions of sexual violence on campus. This legislation will help provide college and university administrators, as well as potential families looking to send their students to an institution of higher education, with hard data and statistics needed to measure the depth and breadth of the epidemic. Moreover, this legislation will strengthen consumer protections in the higher education industry, arming families with easily accessible information when deciding the college or university to which they will send their child.

Last session, a version of this bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously, and this session the bill has 107 Senate and House cosponsors . I would like to thank all of my colleagues who came to stand with me at the hearing in support of this legislation as well as those who submitted their own testimony. I would especially like to thank Chair Jeffrey Roy and Chair Anne Gobi, as well as the other honorable members of the Joint Committee on Higher Education for respectfully and compassionately listening to the overwhelming number of student survivors who came to share their stories and testify as towards why climate surveys are critical in aiding to end this epidemic. We could not have gotten this far if it were not for the advocacy of all of the students, the Every Voice Coalition, Jane Doe Inc., the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), the Victim Rights Law Center, and Know Your IX. I am looking forward to continuing to work with them to implement this initiative this session.

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Dear Chairs Roy and Gobi, and members of the committee. Today’s testimony will be agonizingly difficult for some so I want to thank you in advance for your patience and understanding, also for the time you have devoted to discussing this policy with me.

I come before you today in support of H.1208, An Act requiring sexual misconduct climate surveys at institutions of higher education. This bill, and the Senate version S.736 filed by Senate President Protempore Will Brownsberger, creates a 21-member task force to develop a higher education model sexual assault climate survey. Every college in the state will be provided this survey free of charge. The survey will be conducted every two years.

The purpose of the survey is to collect anonymous data to better understand and address sexual misconduct on college campuses. This legislation unanimously passed both chambers last session. Also notable, both chambers have since implemented climate surveys into their own rules.

Climate surveys are really about the power of information and, in this case, that information is coming directly from those who are living it, not from glossy brochures and PR. Some schools that have conducted surveys have even included everyone on campus such as professors, administrative staff, & cafeteria workers.

A little over a month ago, I was honored to join Speaker DeLeo, Chairman Roy, Sen. Brownsberger, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley at the Every Voice Summit at Harvard Law School. The Every Voice Coalition, led by John Gabrielli, is comprised of students from campuses around the state. I am especially grateful for their courage and for the collective work of advocacy partners like Jane Doe, Know Your IX, BARCC and others.

I would like to share a personal story with you today since it perfectly illustrates the power of this policy. I am a proud graduate of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, class of 1985. When I arrived on campus as a shiny new freshman I was assigned to a co-ed dorm known as Stoughton Hall, in room #305. A previously all-male school, Lehigh had only recently started accepting women so I was glad to be in a small, gender-balanced dorm of 40 students. With 36 fraternities on campus, and 4 brand new sororities located all the way on the other side of the mountain, the transition to a co-ed campus had a long way to go and our social life was entirely driven by fraternity culture, peer pressure, beer, and punch made from cheap grain alcohol – a substance thankfully not legal in Massachusetts.

Unfortunately, while there, many of us were sexually assaulted, but that is not my story today. We all knew something was very wrong on campus but it wasn’t until a few months after we graduated that we would learn just how bad it was.

In September of 1985, 3 months after I graduated, Jeanne Cleary was also a shiny new freshman on Lehigh’s campus, assigned to my freshman dorm, Stoughton Hall, in #301, a room only two doors down from mine. Dorm doors to the outside locked, but with girls new to the campus environment, safety had really not yet risen to a priority. Dominoes pizza boxes were typically used to prop the doors open at night so students could come and go as they wished.

After a night of crawling the Hill (where the fraternities were located) seemingly randomly, a sophomore at the school easily entered Stoughton Hall, walked up to Jeanne’s room at the top of the stairs where she was sleeping, and brutally raped, sodomized, and murdered her. She mightily fought for her life but it was futile.

I share this story with you not to point out that it could have as easily been me, or any woman, but to share with you what happened after.

In their unfathomable grief, Jeanne’s parents, Connie and Howard Clery, did two important things we all can thank them for:

  • First, they sued the school. As part of discovery in their case they learned that there were 38 violent crimes on Lehigh’s campus in the past 3 years. They were quoted as saying, “If they had known this, they never would have allowed her to attend.” They didn’t have the information they needed to make an informed decision.

  • And second, after leading the charge to pass a state-level law in PA, they lobbied Congress for transparency, and required reporting of campus statistics. This is where “The Clery Act” came from, requiring campuses to publicly report certain crimes on every campus in America. Sadly, over the years, colleges have learned how to underreport campus statistics, and of course, with 90% of sexual assaults not reported, the data out is only as good as the data in. But, the law still stands today and every college knows they must comply or face consequences.

Anonymous climate surveys have proven themselves to be the best, most efficient tool to overcome this underreporting and provide a powerful tool for college administrators who are responsible for student safety.

  • Is violence prevention programming working?

  • Is a light needed in a certain spot on campus?

  • Are students fearful?

  • Are counseling services appropriate and available?

  • Which attitudes on campus need to be addressed?

Requiring all campuses in the state to do this levels the playing field, so the 26 campuses in MA are not the only ones proactively stepping up to learn the sometimes hard lessons of what is happening on their watch.

And lastly, climate surveys provide a means of transparency for parents and prospective students to make informed decisions about their safety during what is typically a student’s first time living independently.

Lehigh University’s campus is now majority female, quite safety conscious, and has come a long way since I was there. But safety, and safety policy, certainly varies from campus to campus. Passing this bill is all upside and sends a powerful message from Massachusetts leaders to prospective students, parents of prospective students, and loved ones: While you attend one of our state’s world-class campuses, we care about your safety and want you to be heard.

Preyel Patel