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Guidelines on campus sexual assault should extend to private colleges

A comprehensive approach that sets standards combatting sexual assaults on college campuses should not be limited to public colleges and universities. Private colleges should get on board.

Make that leap on board.

In the interest of protecting students, institutions of higher education should embrace the opportunity to set strong protocols for handling sexual assaults. Then get the word out to students and parents that in addition to efforts at prevention, there is a safe place to go to report and to find justice.

Last year, at the urging of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, all 64 State University of New York’s colleges and universities adopted uniform standards for handling and preventing sexual assault. The policy included a victims’ bill of rights and a system-wide definition of “affirmative consent” when it comes to sexual activity between students.

That was easy to support. So, too, should be the governor’s latest effort, being delivered to college communities by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and appropriately titled the “Enough is Enough Campaign,” to extend those protections to private colleges, requiring them to move beyond the campus and engage with law enforcement. Colleges, whether public or private, are not silos. And, as the governor said, sexual assault is not an academic matter. It’s a crime.

The issue of sexual assaults on campuses, just as in the military, has gained nationwide attention. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who championed greater accountability in cases of military sexual assaults, is also focusing on campus assaults. She has reintroduced a stronger version of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. It would provide incentives for colleges to self-report cases of sexual assault while providing more assistance to the victims.

The Department of Justice has said one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. Last year, President Obama announced a federal task force to address sexual assault on college campuses. Then the Education Department revealed that 55 – since increased to 95, and including Canisius College – colleges and universities, large and small, public and private, were being investigated over their handling of sexual abuse complaints.

Universities have had the obligation to respond to sexual harassment and assault complaints under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, but not all institutions have fully complied. That failure left affected students not knowing where to turn, or who to trust. There should be uniform policies that make that clear: such criminal acts should be reported to the authorities and victims should feel comfortable – and safe – doing so.

Cuomo’s “Enough is Enough Campaign” contains the necessary resources, including a telephone hotline and website dedicated to reporting sexual assaults on campus. State Police Superintendent Joseph A. D’Amico has instituted new protocols to respond to incidents.

Just as in the SUNY model, the governor is again pushing to institute a number of measures, including but not limited to a statewide definition of affirmative consent and a sexual violence victim/survivor bill of rights to inform victims of their legal rights and how they may report sexual assaults to outside law enforcement.

With a push from Cuomo, the SUNY system adopted uniform standards for handling and preventing cases of sexual assault. Those standards should apply to private colleges also.