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House unanimously passes State Rep. Lori Ehrlich’s bill on college sexual violence

If Rep. Lori Ehrlich has her way, Massachusetts would take big steps to combat climate change. (File Photo | Owen O'Rourke)

BOSTON — A bill championed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead), which requires all Massachusetts colleges and universities to perform biennial sexual misconduct climate surveys, was passed unanimously by the State House of Representatives.

The bill, which requires all colleges and universities statewide to use surveys to gather data on the scope and severity of sexual violence on campuses, passed 150 to 0, according to an announcement from Ehrlich’s office.

Ehrlich thanked House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop), House Ways and Means Chair Jeff Sanchez (D-Boston) and Committee on Higher Education House Chair John Scibak (D-South Hadley) for “their support in passing this critical legislation to protect Massachusetts students.”

“I am proud to have filed and championed this bill,” Ehrlich said in a statement. “Every campus is different in regards to the prevalence and nature of sexual violence, but what is true across the board is that students deserve a safe place to learn, study, and grow, as well as transparency from school administrators.”

The bill creates a no-cost model survey distributed by the Commissioner of Higher Education to every institution of higher education in the state.

A summary of the data gathered from each biennial survey will be posted online by each school, which is aimed at helping policymakers craft effective solutions to the sexual violence epidemic and inform current and prospective parents and students, according to information from Ehrlich’s office.

The legislation was supported by student groups such as the Every Voice Coalition and nonprofit advocacy organizations including Jane Doe, Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) and Know Your IX.

“Massachusetts is home to thousands of college students and this bill will promote safer campus life and build transparency into the reporting of occurrences of sexual misconduct at institutions across the Commonwealth,” said DeLeo in a statement.

A research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice found that one in four college women and one in 16 college men will be the victims of an attempted or completed rape during their years at college and more than one-third of women at colleges will experience sexual harassment, according to Ehrlich’s office.

In 2014, MIT was one of the first schools in the state to implement a campus climate survey, which found that 17 percent of female students had been assaulted while enrolled. According to Ehrlich, 26 schools in the Commonwealth have already implemented climate surveys.

The American Medical Association refers to sexual violence as the “Silent Epidemic,” as only 12 percent of college student survivors report their assault to the police. The lack of reporting remains a significant obstacle to finding solutions and protecting students.

“Our work has taught us that survivors of sexual violence often choose to keep a sexual assault to themselves,” said BARCC executive director Gina Scaramella in a statement. “They may fear retaliation, feel deep shame, or need to maintain their relationship with the offender, who may be in the same classes or live in the same dorm. This is why sexual violence is truly a silent epidemic, and to end it, we need more and better information.”

John Gabrieli, Every Voice Coalition co-founder, called the vote a victory for survivors of sexual assault across Massachusetts and a testament to what students can achieve when they join together in a grassroots movement for change.

The bill still has to be passed by the state Senate and be signed off on by the governor before it becomes law.

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