The State University of New York (SUNY) has adopted a uniform sexual assault prevention and response policy for SUNY campuses as announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, Dec. 2.
The uniform SUNY sexual assault policy is a result of a resolution passed by the SUNY Board of Trustees in October in response to Cuomo’s request to create a system-wide set of standards to combat sexual assaults on college campuses, according to a SUNY press release.
The policy was drafted over the past two months with SUNY leadership and working groups of internal and external stakeholders.
A definition of consent is included in the policy, describing affirmative consent as a clear, voluntary agreement between those engaging in sexual activity.
Tanhena Pacheco-Dunn, executive director for compliance and campus climate, said the most crucial element of the policy is the uniform standard of conduct that will be applied to all SUNY schools. It is critical to have one perspective for all on how to handle the concern of student safety and their ability to study in a safe environment, she said.
“I think the next thing that’s pretty critical about this new definition or all the policies altogether really is the fact that it stresses that it has to be a structural change,” she said. “That it goes to everything from education and awareness to how we make sure that our services and our offices are all in line and ready to support victims or people who know victims.”
One key point of the policy includes that silence or lack of resistance cannot be interpreted as consent regardless of an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Consent to any sexual act or prior consensual sexual activity between or with any party does not count as consent to any other sexual act. The policy also states that any sexual acts committed as the result of any acts of threat or harm is not consensual.
“Consent may be initially given but withdrawn at any time,” the policy states. “When consent is withdrawn or cannot be given, sexual activity must stop. The use of coercion, force or threat of harm is evidence of lack of consent. Consent to any one form of sexual activity does not automatically imply consent to any other form(s) of sexual activity, nor do previous relationships or prior consent.”
Another key point is that consent cannot be given when a person is incapacitated — defined as a state in which an individual lacks the ability to fully, knowingly choose to participate in sexual activity. This includes the result of being impaired as a result of drug use or alcohol, lack of consciousness asleep or otherwise, involuntarily restrained, any parties under the age of 17 or if an individual cannot otherwise consent.
The policy includes a Uniform Amnesty Policy to Encourage Reporting, meaning students who report incidents of sexual assault or other sexual violence are granted immunity for drug and alcohol use violations. A system-wide confidentiality and reporting protocol will be put in place to encourage the prompt and accurate reporting of acts of sexual assault and help the campus community to quickly respond to allegations of sexual assault and ensure that students have timely and accurate information about available confidential resources.
A statewide public awareness campaign will occur as well to raise consciousness about individual safety and prevention techniques as well as the importance of bystander intervention in any unsafe situation. Campus climate assessments will also be conducted, according to the press release.
“We’ve been doing lots of training already,” SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian said. “I think the figure I heard was the summer and fall 900 students, student leaders, athletes, student affairs staff were trained particularly in bystander intervention and an understanding kind of the basics of how you respond to a survivor that comes in and reports a sexual assault. These will be continuing. The policies have been approved, but we’ve not gotten much specific guidance from SUNY beyond what we’ve already been doing but we’ve been doing a lot.”
Cait O’Connor, former Student Association (SA) senator and third-year secondary education major, spent a length of time and effort on the New Paltz sexual assault policy and analysis during her time with SA. She said SUNY New Paltz has reacted in a variety of ways to the recent bureaucratic attempts to address campus sexual assault. A Dec. 2 video titled “It’s On Us,” features many students of different backgrounds, including an interpretation of parts of the video in ASL and features student leaders, as well as a message from Christian regarding the school’s stance on the “It’s On Us” campaign. The campaign is designed to make everyone who participates in activities and student life an active participant in preventing sexual assault.
O’Connor also said she worked closely with Michelle Combs, director of student development and Linda Eaton, vice president of student affairs, to implement the Red Flag Campaign — a campaign designed to address and combat dating violence, sexual assault and other related issues. SUNY New Paltz found a way to make the two campaigns “intersect in a long-term, responsive and meaningful way,” she said.
“No amount of funding is enough to bring conscientious change to this issue — minds have to change first,” O’Connor said. “I think for SUNY New Paltz, this will mean that the definitions for consent will become less administratively defined, and empower the survivor to come to terms with and define what has happened to them, and chart their action from there. It will force administrators and University Police to be a little bit more open-minded about these definitions and the real experiences of survivors and equip them to be more sensitively prepared than they have in recent years.”
Another part of the policy includes a sexual violence victim/survivor bill of rights, which informs victims of their right to report sexual assault to local, campus or state law enforcement. SUNY policy outlines how to access campus-specific victim resources, including obtaining a restraining/no contact order and counseling, health, legal and support services. According to the press release, all SUNY students will be notified of the bill of rights by or before the new term begins in January 2015.
Osato Okundaye, SA President, said the newly initiated SUNY policy is a strong policy that encompasses many important topics surrounding sexual assault/violence occurrence and reporting. The new addition of the bill of rights is very important, he said.
“I like the direction the uniform definition of consent is taking because now it encompasses all acts of sexual violence rather than just heterosexual acts of sexual violence,” Okundaye said.
Pacheco-Dunn said much of what is in the new policy is based off of New Paltz’ 2014-15 student handbook policy, changed this past summer, on sexual assault.
“The core of the definition comes from the one we have at New Paltz, though it was enhanced to offer more inclusive language and to further contrast the ways in which consent is present and the ways in which consent is not present,” Pacheco-Dunn said.
The SUNY policy has already began to be implemented, Pacheco-Dunn said. The new definition of consent was included as part of first-year orientation this semester and it was part of the additional training for all student leaders, fraternities, sororities and all student organizations, she said.
In addition, a new website has been launched as part of the policy’s adoption to provide resources for students to learn how they can protect themselves and seek help when necessary and access data regarding all sexual assault and violent crimes reported on all college campuses that operate in the state of New York. The data is reported to the United States Department of Education. The website can be accessed at campuscrime.ny.gov.
“In my opinion, sexual assault is a problem that can solve itself if we all remember one thing: it is never okay to do anything less than ask someone if any specified, individual act of intimacy is okay,” O’Connor said. “That is the definition of ‘yes means yes.’”