California bill would set ‘affirmative consent’ standard for campus sexual assault investigations

02/10/2014 8:58 PM

02/11/2014 10:00 AM

Citing a campus culture that “stigmatizes survivors, not the perpetrators,” state Sen. Kevin de León announced Monday new legislation that would require California colleges and universities to adopt “victim-centered” response protocols and prevention measures for dealing with sexual violence.

“Sexual assaults are just too common, and we need to fundamentally change that,” the Los Angeles Democrat said at a news conference. “This isn’t about boys being boys. This is about men, young men, teenage boys being sexual predators. There is nothing casual about this.”

The bill, co-authored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, and Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would establish “affirmative consent” as the standard for determining whether consent had been given by the complainant in an on-campus case. This puts the responsibility on a person who wants to engage in sexual activity to ensure that he or she has explicit consent from a partner.

Although some colleges have begun to adopt this definition, it represents a shift from the more common “ ‘no’ means ‘no’ ” principle of sexual assault, in which someone must express a lack of consent. Prosecutors in a criminal case usually have to show that the accuser did not or was unable to give consent.

“The measure will change the equation so the system is not stacked against the survivors,” de León said. “There’s nothing that’s vague, there’s nothing that’s ambiguous to this equation right here.”

The legislation would also develop policies to encourage greater protection and services for victims, as well as education and intervention on campus.

“It seems sexual assault is treated as an inevitable part of the college experience, and instead of fighting to change it, schools simply overlook it,” Jackson said. “We’re here to change that paradigm.”

Lowenthal noted that one in five female college students will be sexually assaulted, but fewer than half will report the crime. Lowenthal called the situation a “crisis.”

The legislators were flanked by several dozen young women who work on issues related to rape on their college campuses. In an interview after the event, Sofie Karasek, a junior in political economy at UC Berkeley, emphasized the need for procedures that do not re-victimize survivors.

Karasek said she was sexually assaulted two years ago and felt that she had to prove her credibility to university investigators after reporting the attack. She was one of nine students to file a federal complaint last year alleging that UC Berkeley had mishandled student reports of sexual assaults.

“I felt very disrespected and betrayed” by the investigation process, Karasek said. “I expected that from the police, but I didn’t expect that from my school.”

A similar complaint filed against Occidental College in Los Angeles, which has resulted in an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, was among the reasons cited by de León for his bill. Last year, 37 students, faculty and alumni alleged that the school had improperly reported and adjudicated sexual assaults, and in some cases, covered up rapes.

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