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Friday January 21st

Column: Addressing campus sexual assault

<p>(From left) Valerie P. Foushee, Graig Meyer and Verla Insko speak to the audience at Orange County's Democratic Party's election party at Might as Well in Chapel Hill in November 2018.&nbsp;</p>
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(From left) Valerie P. Foushee, Graig Meyer and Verla Insko speak to the audience at Orange County's Democratic Party's election party at Might as Well in Chapel Hill in November 2018. 

The OC Voice is a portion of the OC Report newsletter where local residents may have a platform to talk about local issues they care about. Graig Meyer is the state representative for House District 50, covering portions of Orange and Durham counties. He can be contacted at graig.meyer@ncleg.net.

After hearing about recent events that have left female students feeling unsafe on and near campus, I am reminded of an event I attended in 2016. A group of students, who are the survivors of campus sexual assault, and their allies invited me to an event at UNC where survival stories were shared with campus leaders. It was powerful and humbling to listen to the stories that were shared. The immediate trauma of sexual assault saddened me, but the enduring mental and emotional damage was what really made me feel anger.

I was also struck by the fact that the survivors of sexual assault have to carry much of the burden for making the response system work. They have to choose to see a doctor, they have to proactively file a report, they often have to initiate contact with authorities if they want to get any update on what’s happening in their case. All the while, they are sharing space on campus with their perpetrator.

Colleges and universities have an obligation under Title IX to provide equal access to education regardless of gender. When institutions of higher education fail to adequately respond to sexual assault, it creates barriers to equal educational access.

The need for improved response is clear. In the 2017-18 school year, there were 27 formal allegations and 97 informal reports of sexual assault at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is likely below the true incidence of sexual assault because sexual violence is underreported. Moreover, research indicates that many perpetrators of sexual assault are repeat offenders. Across North Carolina, institutional response to reports of sexual assault is too often inadequate, and the policies, processes and resources in place vary drastically from campus to campus.

In 2015, I introduced House Bill 815 to address campus sexual assault. The bill would mandate an affirmative consent standard, ensure strong victim protections and allow North Carolina colleges to have consistent policies on both public and private campuses. Unfortunately, the bill received a hearing, but no support for moving forward.

In April of this year I tried again to address this issue, signing on to co-sponsor House Bill 393, a bill that would modernize sexual assault laws. It would clarify the definition of caretaker used in the juvenile code, prohibit the knowing distribution of a beverage that contains any substance that could be injurious to a person's health, and amend the definition of "mentally incapacitated" as it applies to rape and other sex offenses to apply to a victim who is rendered incapable by any act. Unfortunately, that hasn’t moved forward either.

While many institutions, including UNC, have made significant changes to policy and procedure in recent years, the ongoing nature of this problem shows that all colleges and universities have a long way to go in fighting sexual assault on campus. Implementing system-wide reform ensures that all our campuses meet best practices while increasing resources for response and prevention.

While President Barack Obama made fighting campus sexual assault a priority of his presidency through increased Department of Education enforcement and the “It’s On Us” campaign, the current president has not pursued this effort. In the face of federal inaction, the state has a clear role to play in confronting sexual assault on campus and the challenges survivors face. This is not a partisan issue. This is about the safety of students across our state. The time to address it is now.

If you live in Orange County and want to make your voice heard on something you care about locally, email city@dailytarheel.com.

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