Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and his staff hosted a roundtable discussion at the University on Monday, Oct. 6, to discuss The Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASAct), a bipartisan bill to combat sexual violence on campuses, support survivors, and hold colleges and universities accountable to the federal law. University students, faculty, and staff were all encouraged to voice their opinions to Blumenthal.
In July, Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER) joined forces with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Blumenthal, Senator Dean Heller (R-NV), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) to develop CASAct. The bill mandates that universities provide students with surveys to document their experiences with sexual assault, increases fines for violating the Clery Act, increases penalties for Title IX violations, requires more disclosure on the Department of Education’s investigations under Title IX, establishes confidential advisor positions for all institutions, and requires institutions to form memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement.
Blumenthal spoke about how he became involved with the issue of sexual assault after hearing about the issue from his four children while they were in school.
“I know personally, through the eyes of [my kids’] friends and their classmates, as well as through now your eyes and your voices, how important this issue is,” Blumenthal said. “Sexual assault on campus is staggeringly prevalent and stunningly unreported.”
The roundtable discussion was organized by both the Office of Equity and Inclusion and the Feminist Underground. Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Title IX Officer Antonio Farias explained that Blumenthal was on campus earlier in the semester and had suggested returning for the discussion.
University President Michael Roth emphasized the importance of the senator’s visit.
“Senator Blumenthal has been making a tour of various college campuses in the states to make the problem of sexual assault more visible,” Roth said. “I think that that’s a great service because it is very hard to combat a problem when it’s kept invisible. So getting people to report gives us a greater chance to find perpetrators, and deal with them accordingly. I’m delighted he has come here to shed light on what is happening here at Wesleyan. I know we have a long way to go before we are perfect, but that’s the way to make it better—shine a light on things.”
The Senator voiced the concern that he hears most frequently at roundtable discussions he has attended.
“Many victims felt that they were victimized twice,” Blumenthal said. “First, by the assailant, and then by the system which responded inaccurately. I’m here to listen.”
Alexandria Irace ’15, an attendee of the event, said she is pleased that sexual assault is finally garnering the attention it deserves on a national scale.
“I appreciate that Senator Blumenthal is reaching out to students to embrace their input,” Irace wrote in an email to The Argus.
Natalie Ancona ’15 also attended the event. She spoke to the importance of topics discussed.
“We did cover a few key points that weren’t mentioned in the bill, including short-term accountability per individual hearing—not a Title IX complaint—and stronger, uniform sanctions for assault,” Ancona said. “Hopefully these are two points we can keep pushing with Senator Blumenthal.”
The Middletown Police Department and the State Attorney General were also in attendance at the meeting. Farias explained the advantage to having various entities both present at the meeting and understanding the salience of the issue.
“The reality is that students don’t just show up to Wesleyan and all of sudden start assaulting people or having boundary issues in terms of touching,” Farias said. “We don’t create predators, we don’t create people [who] go off the rails—that is a long process that starts in the K-12 system. You come in here with 18 years of having lived and been habituated into interacting with each other in a certain way, so it can’t be a part of Wesleyan to fix 18 years of issues. We can attempt to control what happens in Middletown.”
Farias added that in addition to these conversations, the University will be hosting Memorandums of Understanding (MOU). One discussion will be with the city of Middletown and another with the Women and Families Center. The intention of the MOUs is to have an outside perspective on sexual assault.
“Right now we have a Title IX team, and we want [the other entities] to be part of our advisor group, not just to help us…with issues, but we want their expertise in how we change our policies [and] what [we do not] see,” Farias said. “All of us in some way have blind spots… and we don’t have the only answer, and that’s why we need someone from the outside [to] say, ‘Have you looked at [it] this way?’ That’s how we’re going to figure out how to understand it a bit better.”
Nina Gurak ’16, student Title IX Committee member and co-president of Students For Consent and Communication, attended the discussion. Gurak described the benefits of hearing a variety of outlooks at the roundtable.
“I was interested to hear more about the Senator’s ideas for changing the bill, and it was a great opportunity to speak with administrators at other schools in the area who are doing amazing things,” Gurak wrote in an email to The Argus.
Gurak also spoke to her disappointment with the current enforcement of Title IX.
“I’m honestly disappointed with the lack of funding to the Department of Education to enforce Title IX,” Gurak wrote. “It goes back to accountability. Currently, the channels that are supposed to hold people accountable are not working in a timely manner because there are simply not enough personnel to make that feasible.” Blumenthal emphasized that although the bill addresses many issues, it is up to the universities and colleges to follow through to make sure change actually occurs. He praised the actions the University has taken thus far, including the decision for fraternities to become coeducational.
“This bill has a lot of traction, potential, impetus, but at the end of the day, the campuses of the universities and colleges can do a lot of it on their own,” Blumenthal said. “They can move forward with this program.”
Blumenthal also spoke about the response he hoped to generate from yesterday’s discussion.
“What most impressed me today [were] the comments of the survivors who were rightly and understandably impatient with the system that exists now,” Blumenthal said. “Impatient in a good sense: they want more justice more promptly and more reliably. I’m going to try to improve the bill to make sure that there are not only greater opportunities to seek justice, but also more support for survivors who undergo tremendous pain when they are victims of an assailant but then also victimized again if the system is ineffective.”
Farias noted that while working through this bill, Blumenthal’s key approach to a solution is compromise in a national setting.
“Any solution is a compromise solution,” Farias said. “When you’re 18 to 21, you don’t like that word… but if you’re going to work toward any solution, you have to compromise. And compromise does not mean [devaluing], it means we have to cross the street, and if we can’t agree on how to get across the street, let’s at least get outside the door and we’re one step closer. The view of the mission is still there, but the compromise is what gets us all the way.”
He added that the role of the University is to stay connected to changing matters and to not walk away from tough issues.
As for future plans, the Office of Equity and Inclusion hopes that Senator Blumenthal will return to the University and become integrated into micro-conversations within classroom settings.
“What he heard [today] was a lot of passionate voices and people willing to be courageous about things,” Farias said. “I think that’s part of our voice, but…there’s only so much you can understand about what is happening at Wesleyan and in Middletown. The more times we can bring him back here… the more we can see everything in a more transparent way, and the more… our voices will one way or another integrate into the DNA of his bill.”
Farias hopes that this conversation will spread and that all students with an opinion on these issues will speak up.
“The door is always open [to discuss this issue],” Farias said. “We are always willing to have those engaging discussions, but change only happens when you actually have a conversation, and conversation means that one party is listening and the other party is speaking, then the other party is listening and the other one speaking. So I think [students at the University are] mature enough that they will continue to be part of the process, and I hope that they… will develop a level of sustainability beyond just the current students in charge.”
Gurak agreed, adding how beneficial it is to have this conversation at the University as a jumping-off point for wider contexts.
“As someone who has worked on this issue for quite a few years in various capacities, it is exciting to see that it is finally grabbing national attention,” Gurak wrote. “I really hope that we can capitalize on this movement in the future to address all forms of sexual violence, not just violence that occurs on college campuses.”
Additional reporting contributed by Leeland Meade Miller.