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Politics & Government

Wolf targets ‘corrosive’ sexual violence at colleges, universities with package of bills

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Matt Rourke
/
AP

Gov. Tom Wolf is spearheading a package of legislation aimed at combatting sexual violence on college campuses.

The four bills would, among other things, require clearer policies about sexual consent and information on counseling and protective services for victimized students. Middle and high schools would also have to provide anti-sexual violence education.

“We cannot accept a culture in our colleges or in our commonwealth that allows sexual violence to continue,” Wolf said Monday.

Wolf first signed off on rules changing how higher education institutions handle sexual assault in 2019. Pennsylvania college students can now anonymously report sexual assault and other violence — and they can’t be punished if they were drinking or using drugs at the time. Since 2016, his administration has offered schools millions of dollars in grants to enact plans to address the problem.

Data shows a broad swath of higher ed students have dealt with sexual violence. At Penn State’s University Park campus alone, nearly a fourth of its 40 thousand-strong student body said in 2018 they experienced some kind of sexual assault while studying there.

Mirroring laws already on the books in states like California and Illinois, the governor and Democratic lawmakers want to make affirmative consent policies standard practice at Pennsylvania colleges and universities. Under that kind of policy, both parties have to agree to a sexual encounter rather than one person being required to say “no” to that experience.

Advocates say that would go a long way to help students understand what consent means before an assault happens.

“Students already receive initial training in sexual violence prevention, but this would update those trainings to make the content more modern and effective,” University of Pennsylvania senior and activist Ari Fromm said.

Under another bill in the package, students in seventh through 12th grade would learn about how to spot and combat dating violence. The State Board of Education would first have to study whether lawmakers should make that kind of education mandatory and submit a report.

Donna Greco of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape said if students learn how to spot problematic behavior sooner, fewer of them would drop out of college each year because of sexual violence.

“They lose out on opportunities that will allow them to thrive in their lives,” she said. “But we know with support and resources, victims have a better chance of staying on track, staying in class, [and] connecting with the aspects of campus life that bring them joy.”

Most of the bills have a Republican co-sponsor, signaling the majority party is willing to work on them. But it’s unclear how quickly the measures might move with just a few months left on the calendar.

A separate but related bill opening a window of time for survivors of childhood sexual trauma to sue their abusers has been allowed to languish for months in the state Senate. Republican Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward has said she prefers to approve such a measure through the years-long constitutional amendment process.