Standing Up For The Victims

I wrote an op-ed piece for The Journal News that appeared over the weekend. The piece is about a Westchester resident who was allegedly assaulted at The University of Stony Brook. Here are my thoughts about her experience and the legislation i have proposed to help her and future victims.

It’s been more than 40 years since I was sexually assaulted and the image of my attacker remains with me.

I can still see his face and the details of that horrendous experience are etched in my mind.  I am adult now and logically I know this man can no longer hurt me. Yet the idea of having to face the predator who assaulted me continues to terrify me in ways that most people can never imagine.

So it was as if my heart stopped beating when I saw the headline, “SUNY grad says school made her prosecute her own sex attacker” on the front page of The Journal News.  Sarah Tubbs, a Montrose resident, attended the State University at Stony Brook on Long island. She was allegedly sexually assaulted on campus then required to prosecute the alleged attacker herself at a university disciplinary hearing.  She had initiated a disciplinary action because campus police had advised her that she didn’t
have a case.  Sarah is now suing Stony Brook to have its practice of having sexual assault victims “prosecute their own cases and cross-examine and be cross-examined by their assailants” abolished and for damages.

The thought of Sarah having not only to confront her alleged assailant but also to act as both prosecutor and defendant is disconcerting as well as infuriating.  It flies in the face of everything we have learned and know about sexual assault and helping survivors of sexual assault.

Whether Stony Brook has abolished or will abolish this abhorrent practice remains to be seen. The Journal News reported that the university declined to comment on the issue.

I am calling on Stony Brook and every other college and university in New York State to strike down this policy and remove it from their respective student handbooks.  Such a policy has no place in any code of conduct.

Although the State Universities of New York adopted, at Governor Cuomo’s urging, a stricter sexual assault policy last December, Sarah’s alleged attack occurred in January 2014. Sarah wants to make sure the SUNY policy expressly prohibits victims being forced to prosecute their attackers at student disciplinary hearings.

My heart goes out to this young woman and to every other woman or man who has been forced to confront the predator who has forever changed their lives.  We must remember, whether it’s in society or on campus, to protect the one who has been attacked, not just the alleged attacker.

I have introduced legislation (A.5400) that requires college campuses to adopt policies and procedures concerning sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, involving on and off campus students. The policies must include a definition of affirmative consent (note a person cannot consent if incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs), and victim-
centered protocols that cover the initial response by the school to a report of an incident and investigating and adjudicating the report. Colleges would also be required to implement comprehensive prevention and outreach programs addressing sexual violence and, where feasible, enter into agreements or collaborative partnerships with existing on-campus and community-based organizations, including rape crisis centers, to refer students for assistance or make services available to students.

Stories of sexual assault on college campuses have become all too familiar and the statistics often cited are chilling.  According to the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, at least 1 in 4 college women will be the victim of a sexual assault during her academic career.

The Department of Justice reported in 2007 that 1 in 5 women are targets of attempted or completed sexual assault while they are college students, compared to about 1 in 16 college men.  A 2014 White House Task Force reported that many victims report they are sexually abused while drugged, drunk, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated.

Yet less than five percent of rapes and attempted rapes of college students are reported to campus authorities or law enforcement according to the National Institute of Justice.

Rather than accept these statistics as the norm, we must compel colleges to establish clearer policies and procedures regarding the handling of reports of sexual assault and the treatment of sexual assault victims while safeguarding the rights and privacy of both accused and accuser.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to pursue any action, whether through the courts or through an academic disciplinary process, against the person who has sexually assaulted you.  We, collectively, have an obligation to ensure that when that decision is made, the report of sexual assault is properly investigated, a fair adjudication process is maintained, and the victim
is treated with sensitivity and respect.

I was a victim and time, according to some, heals all wounds. Some wounds, though, don’t go away. And if four decades haven’t changed how I feel about confronting my attacker, how must Sarah Tubbs have felt just months removed from her alleged assault.

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