Democratic members of the Westchester County Board of Legislators announced their support last Friday for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide campus sexual assault prevention policy that would expand its reach to all colleges and universities.
Earlier this year, Cuomo introduced the Enough Is Enough proposal, which was developed to ensure that all students at public and private colleges and universities throughout the state are protected through comprehensive and uniform procedures and guidelines regarding sexual assaults. The policy was adopted by all SUNY schools last year, but the latest proposal would be extended to cover the state’s remaining 13 colleges and universities.
“We feel that the governor’s program is extraordinarily comprehensive and addresses the needs of the university as well as the needs of the victims of sexual assault,” said Democratic Majority Leader Catherine Borgia (D-Ossining).
“It empowers them to take charge of the prosecution of their assailants and also allows them to have dignity in the process, allows them choice in which law enforcement agency they deal with and allows them to not become re-victimized by the process of investigating these crimes.”
Many colleges and universities currently handle reports of sexual assaults through student disciplinary councils, which Legislator Peter Harckham (D-North Salem) called an inadequate and unacceptable practice. Sexual assault should be held to the same standard on a college campus as it is for the general public, he said.
Borgia added that under current practices many victims avoid coming forward.
The mother of a daughter in college, Borgia said that students must be aware of their legal rights.
One in four college women will be the victim of a sexual assault, according to statistics from the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. However, fewer than 5 percent of sexual assaults against college women are reported to police, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Legislator MaryJane Shimsky (D-Hastings-on-Hudson) compared the frequency of sexual assaults on college campuses to the sexual assault problem that exists within the military. She noted that a more victim-friendly approach to handling sexual assaults would not only encourage more victims to report crimes, but would help police catch serial offenders.
It is estimated that the majority of college women who are sexually assaulted know their attacker.
The Enough Is Enough proposal would create a statewide definition of affirmative consent, removing the ambiguity that currently exists, Harckham said. For example, a woman cannot consent if under the influence.
The Democratic caucus plans to introduce a resolution declaring its support for Cuomo’s proposal in the coming weeks. Legislators voiced optimism that it would receive bipartisan support.
Several legislators last week criticized County Executive Rob Astorino for not signing on to Cuomo’s proposal when it was introduced about two weeks ago.
“These provisions are so commonsense, so necessary to protect our children, I don’t understand why anyone could possibly be opposed to them,” Shimsky said. “We need to come together; this is not something to play politics about.”
Astorino spokesman Phil Oliva explained that the county executive chose not to sign on to the governor’s proposal because he was asked to do so just hours before the deadline and felt that he did not have enough time to adequately research the proposal.
Emphasizing that the decision was not a political ploy, Oliva said that Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat, chose not to sign for similar reasons.
“Rob doesn’t just sign on to bills or proposals without knowing what is in them,” he said.
Astorino has since spoken to law enforcement agencies and victim advocacy groups to learn more about the issue. He believes that Cuomo’s proposal could be taken even further, Oliva said. Astorino would like to see a victim’s rights advocate at colleges and universities, a position funded through the school but functioning independently. The advocate would be able to assist victims through the steps of reporting and prosecuting sexual assaults, Oliva said.