Governor Cuomo, who has been trumpeting his commitment to women's issues as the election draws near, tackled a growing national issue yesterday: Sexual violence on college campuses. He announced a "comprehensive system-wide uniform set of practices to combat sexual assaults" at SUNY schools, which was passed by the SUNY Board of Trustees. Cuomo said, "There has been an epidemic of sexual violence in this country that is truly disturbing and is inarguable. It is... past the point where we are talking about one or two incidents, an anecdotal reaction. It is an epidemic. And it is spreading. And it is pervasive. It's plaguing our college campuses, it's astonishing, and it's troubling."
You can read details of the resolution here (PDF), but the governor's office outlined the main points of the plan:
- A uniform, system-wide definition of consent that is required between participants before engaging in sexual activity;
-An immunity policy to protect students coming forward to report sexual assault;
A statewide training program for campus police and administrators regarding how to address sexual assault incidents;
- A public campaign to increase awareness among students and parents; and
- A uniform Sexual Assault Victims' Bill of Rights that will, in clear and specific language, inform a student of his or her rights following an attack including the option of approaching State Police.
Cuomo said of the "uniform definition of consent," "Right now, different institutions have their own definition of consent. I understand the individuality of the 64 institutions in SUNY. But some things should be uniform and a women's consent in Oswego should be a women's consent in Buffalo, should be a women's' consent in Albany. And a woman’s consent in Oswego should be a woman’s consent in Buffalo and should be a woman’s consent in Albany. So this establishes a uniform definition of consent."
At SUNY Adirondack, a community college in Queensbury, consent is defined in a single paragraph — and further distilled to this concise bottom line: “Clear, unambiguous and voluntary agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity.”
At SUNY Brockport, the document defining the college’s interpretation runs across multiple pages, with 21 bullet points. Brockport offers students tips like “Good suggestions for gaining consent” (“Is it O.K. if I take off my pants?”) and “the ‘Dude’ Routine,” a way to check in on friends you fear may need assistance at a party. “Knock or slightly open a closed door and with any excuse starting with ‘dude’ (it somehow makes it more believable) to check the situation,” the guide advises. “ ‘Dude, I thought this was the bathroom.’ ”
It establishes rights where the woman, if she believes she was a victim of a sexual assault, can deal with the campus police and notify the campus police or the local police or the State police. But it is the woman’s choice and the woman’s option.
Fewer than five percent of the cases were reported. Why? Because the incentive for the school is to treat it as an internal matter. Why? Because the school doesn’t want the exposure, the school doesn’t want the publicity, it’s not a positive in any situation. And I believe that the incentives actually can be a disservice to the victim, because the incentive for the institution is at odds with what might be in the best interest for the victim. And again, I understand the tendency and I understand the motivation to handle it as an internal matter. But rape is a crime. This is not subject to a college campus determination or a college campus policy. It is a crime. And a campus cannot define what is a crime as something less than a crime, and can’t be imposing and adjudicating what should be adjudicated as a crime.
This is a particularly controversial issue: Earlier this year, a number of Columbia University students sued the school for inadequately reporting their allegations of rape and abuse to the police, saying the school kept it a campus matter. Columbia' s apparent inaction has prompted one victim to carry around a mattress until her rapist is expelled and has received an outpouring of support.
The Governor emphasized, "This is a personal situation for me, I have three young ladies, I have two in college now and the third is going to go to college next year, hopefully. The Cuomo family, my father and mother - fourteen grandchildren, thirteen girls out of fourteen grandchildren. God has been good to us when it comes to relationships with females. But it's personal for me and it's personal for all of us. These numbers are really staggering and really disturbing. Therein lies the opportunity for SUNY."