Cuomo initiates first-ever SUNY policy to combat sexual assault

Oswego State President Deborah Stanley (left) meets with SUNY Board of Trustees and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (right center) in New York City Oct. 2 to initiate a SUNY-wide sexual assault policy, similar to California’s “Yes Means Yes” recent policy.  (Photo provided by the Governor’s  Office)
Oswego State President Deborah Stanley (left) meets with SUNY Board of Trustees and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (right center) in New York City Oct. 2 to initiate a SUNY-wide sexual assault policy, similar to California’s “Yes Means Yes” recent policy. (Photo provided by the Governor’s Office)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo met with the State University of New York Board of Trustees Oct. 2 to introduce a system-wide policy preventing, investigating and prosecuting sexual assault on college campuses.

“There has been an epidemic of sexual violence in this country that is truly disturbing, and it is plaguing our college campuses,” Cuomo said. “It is time for New York to take what is a difficult, uncomfortable topic and lead the way.”

The governor’s initiative is similar to California’s “Yes Means Yes” bill that was passed in late September. The “Yes Means Yes” bill is structured to change how California campuses handle sexual assault and redefines sexual consent.

According to a Huffington Post poll, Americans are nearly four times more likely to say that colleges and universities do a bad job than they are to say they do a good job of handling cases of rape, sexual assault or harassment.

Cuomo proposed a resolution to set uniform practices in order to combat sexual assault across all SUNY campuses. Cuomo is considering legislation in the future after studying the results of the new policy. After passing this resolution, the Board of Trustees agreed to implement these changes to compliment the policies already used on their campuses.

The governor appointed Linda Fairstein, a novelist and former sex crimes prosecutor, to help talk through and execute the requirements of the resolution as an adviser for the state university system.

According to Oswego State President Deborah Stanley, Oswego State has already made some changes in response to many of the laws and regulations that have advanced over the years. Title IX is, as of now, the controlling legislation at the university.

“Our definitions, policies and procedures are already in line with most of what was covered,” Title IX Coordinator Lisa Evaneski said. “Even with all of the intersecting laws and legal mandates, our goal is to make sure we are creating a campus culture that values the safety and wellness of our community and is prepared to take reports and provide helpful information to our students, employees and visitors.”

According to President Stanley, the Oswego State administration does not expect significant changes to its policies but still plans to comply with the Board of Trustees’ resolutions. At this time, the administration has 60 days to study what changes need to be made in order to improve how sexual assault is handled. Alongside Fairstein, Oswego Sate will see how the regulations are progressing, report the outcomes and see if they need to be modified in the system-wide policy. This is just the first step in what could be future legislation for campuses, not only in the SUNY system, but across New York State.

“Oswego has a three-pronged approach,” Stanley said. “We make the campus safe, as safe as we possibly can, both physically and with protection of others, police and bi-standers and faculty. Then we educate as well. We do that in a pervasive fashion. It starts at orientation and we take it through many of the groups on campus, including faculty and staff. Then we also address incidents of sexual assault and harassment in a comprehensive matter, both assuring vigorous pursuit in order to redress the wrong that was done.”

Because of this new resolution, all SUNY campuses are now required to define consent between two people participating in sexual activity, create policies to protect students who report sexual assault, provide a statewide training program for campus police and administrators and create a campaign to increase awareness for parents and students. This resolution also includes a Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights that informs a student of his or her rights following sexual assault, which includes the option of involving the New York State Police.

Opposed to older policies, these new practices involve a standard definition of consent, which defines consent by the word “yes” instead of “no.” It involves an affirmative response that a participant confirmed that it was OK for sexual relations, and that is now considered the only way to confirm consent, rather than the old policy of “no means no.”

According to Stanley, there are different standards of proof. If it is criminal in the court of law, proof has to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Although, if it is civil, like it is on Oswego State’s campus, the standard of proof is less and it can be proven by the victim saying “yes.”

The SUNY system has until early December to put these changes into effect.

“Anything that makes our campuses safer for women and men, as far as sexual assault is concerned, is really important,” Stanley said. “It is important for a lot of reasons. We don’t want anyone physically or emotionally injured.It limits and constricts the educational environment for victims, and we don’t want that. That is a matter of equity that I think attaches to any situation like bullying or racial harassment and sexual harassment is one of those.”