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Rutgers student assembly strikes down bill to create sexual assault prevention committee

There are less than 1,000 student-athletes at Rutgers but thousands of sexual assault survivors, Allie Williams announced from a podium at a Rutgers University Student Assembly meeting on Sept. 24.

For an hour, Williams, a student assembly member and a School of Arts and Sciences junior, took another run at creating a committee to address campus sexual assault after previous incarnations of the bill fell flat at earlier meetings. But at the end of the evening after amendments and motions were tossed back and forth, Williams stepped away from the front of the room visibly deflated as the bill failed to acquire support from two-thirds of the assembly’s voting members.

Prior to the final vote, Williams, who headed a student assembly campus sexual assault task force last year, scanned the faces of more than 30 attendees at the meeting as she proposed creating an ad hoc, or temporary, campus sexual assault committee, which would be effective for up to one year. 

She said the ad hoc committee was a step down from her original proposal, which sought to establish a standing, or permanent, committee.

Christina McGinnis, one of the bill’s supporters and a School of Arts and Sciences senior, motioned to amend the bill back to a standing committee from an ad hoc committee, which was amended back down to ad hoc almost immediately by Vishal Patel, student assembly treasurer and a School of Arts and Sciences junior.

"All the other committees, if you think about them — (cover broader topics) … (and) this committee is such a specific issue," Patel said during a short speech justifying his reasons for not supporting the bill. "And even long-term, this committee can be merged into another committee, so I don’t see this committee standing on its own." 

The bill proposing the creation of the ad hoc committee listed a series of goals, starting with advocacy of survivors and distribution of sexual assault prevention literature, and ended with student assembly involvement in “anything pertaining to sexual assault.”

“Sexual assault brutally violates someone’s basic human rights and is a prominent issue on campuses, including Rutgers University,” Williams read from the bill.

She pointed out Rutgers’ involvement in the national campus sexual assault dialogue, citing the University’s partnership with the White House to pilot a survey in 2014, its participation in the #iSpeak climate survey and its latest involvement with the campus-wide program, “Not Anymore: The Revolution Starts Here: End Sexual Violence Now.”

Still, sexual assault makes its mark on students.

Twenty-four percent of women reported experiencing sexual violence before coming to Rutgers, Williams said, quoting from the #iSpeak survey, which was taken by 12,343 students, or 29.5 percent of invited participants, according to the survey’s online assessment.

Students who did not identify as heterosexual were two to three times more likely to experience sexual violence before coming to college and after becoming college students, according to #iSpeak survey results, she said. And nationally, 3 percent of American men, or one in 33, reported being a victim of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in their lifetimes, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Further, undergraduate women are most at risk for sexual assault, Williams said, with 20 percent of undergraduate women reporting at least one instance of unwanted sexual contact. Yet, less than 8 percent of undergraduate women survivors reported their incidents to campus resources, according to #iSpeak numbers.

Although Williams and a handful of meeting attendees stood staunchly in support of the bill, other assembly members expressed their doubt, calling into question the assembly’s ability to combat sexual assault and the purpose of a campus sexual assault committee by calling it a public relations move.

“People have a misconception about ad hoc committees,” said Nivedh Rajesh, the student assembly’s chair of University Affairs and one of the bill’s critics. “They kind of think of them in a negative light, they think they’re kind of like, ‘Okay, it’s temporary, focusing on very specific issues ... ’ and it’s true, we are focusing on a very specific issue, but that doesn’t mean it’s because of the fact that we don’t care about it.”

But McGinnis hotly refuted Rajesh’s opposition to the creation of a standing committee, telling him that sexual assault was not a “one mission” issue.

“Sexual assault is such a serious issue,” she said. “It’s not going to be like, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do to combat sexual assault ... We’ve got to have a committee dedicated to ending sexual assault here in (the student assembly). Because if we don’t have that, if we don’t enact that now, when is it going to get enacted?”

Neither McGinnis or Williams yet have the answer to that question. While 14 voting members stood in support of the bill, eight members voted no and nine members abstained from voting. An unconfirmed number of members were absent during Thursday’s meeting, and the tallied numbers did not meet the two-thirds requirement for passing a bill.

In contrast to the conflict ensnaring the campus sexual assault committee bill, Williams recalled the creation of the athletics standing committee last year, which she said took less than half an hour to pass, with minimal debate.

“I’m incredibly disappointed, both in the people who voted no and in the people who abstained,” Williams said. “But I’m not done, and this isn’t over. I’m going to try again.”

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