CONCORD, N.H. — On a Thursday morning in late February last year, first-year Dartmouth College student David Millman traveled from Hanover to Concord to testify in front of the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee. He hitched a ride with State Rep. Garrett Muscatel, who was on his way to work.
Millman and other advocates gathered in Room 100 of the New Hampshire State House. On the table was Senate Bill 679 that, if passed, would provide comprehensive protections to victims of campus sexual assault.
In his testimony, Millman recalled overhearing a male floormate, who already had several Title IX reports filed against him, talking about some of Millman’s female friends, saying, “Let’s get them so drunk that they can’t say no.”
“The more I talk to people, the more I realize that it’s not a unique experience at all. Everyone I talk to has either been impacted or knows someone who has been impacted by sexual violence,” Millman told committee members. “This bill does a lot of amazing things, but ensuring a fair and timely investigation, and the counseling that this bill provides in particular, would have vastly improved the experiences of the victims on my floor.”
Laying the groundwork
In January, New Hampshire’s new law regarding sexual assault and sexual misconduct in institutions of higher education went into effect, giving the Granite State one of the most comprehensive laws of its kind in the country. The bill, which was signed in July, passed with bipartisan support against seemingly unlikely odds during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was really amazing to see just how many student leaders were really dedicated to improving the climate on college campuses,” said Pamela Keilig, public policy specialist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Report for America:North Carolina fast-food workers demanded — and won — COVID protections from management
The students who led the effort are part of a volunteer-run organization called the Every Voice Coalition, founded by Massachusetts college students in 2014, now in several states.
“It’s our deeply-held belief that those closest to the pain should be closest to the power, and students and survivors should be part of crafting their own solution,” said John Gabrieli, one of the co-founders of Every Voice.
According to a 2019 survey of 33 four-year colleges by the Association of American Universities, 20.4% of women on college campuses, 5.1% of men and 20.3% of transgender and non-binary students experienced sexual assault since they have been enrolled in school. Under the federal Clery Act, colleges and universities that receive federal funding are required to disclose statistics on crimes, including sexual assault and dating violence.
An urgent need
Some victim advocates argue that the 2020 federal Title IX guidelines from former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos leave gaps where fewer protections are guaranteed to survivors. The looser guidelines give schools more freedom to offer informal resolution processes, to use a case standard that sets a higher burden of proof of guilt, and allow cross-examination during a live hearing.
The crafters of New Hampshire’s “Every Voice Bill” intended to fill some of the gaps and provide protections for survivors.
New Hampshire’s legislation requires institutions to work more closely with local crisis centers and law enforcement, provide anti-retaliation protections for reporting parties, and mandates transparent data collection and awareness programming.
Report for America:Homeless children need a chance — LeBron James’ program gives them one in his hometown
“This legislation was so significant because these best practices had never been codified into (state) law before,” said Keilig. “The guidelines are often subject to change based on the federal rules and regulations.”
Students teamed up with experts from the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence to began drafting the legislation in the fall of 2019. For those getting involved in the legislative process for the first time, it was an unexpected success.
That fall, Gabrieli drove up to Dartmouth to meet students. They would sit around a table in one of the college’s study rooms for hours, talking about what protections were needed, going through the legal language and beginning to write the legislation.
State Sen. Martha Hennessey, who agreed to sponsor the bill, was almost too busy to take it on. But her own experiences as an assault survivor and member of the first class of women at Dartmouth College, led her to agree, and so did the dedication of the students.
Co-sponsored by 13 Democrats and six Republicans, the bill passed the Senate unanimously. Just when it was set to head to the House, COVID-19 shut down the legislature until June.
A second chance
The bill got a second chance at life. Senators circumvented missed deadlines brought about by the pandemic by packing it into an omnibus bill.
When they heard the bill was back in action, the students, working from home, hurriedly began a push to phone all of New Hampshire’s 400 state representatives and 24 senators. They made a massive spreadsheet and asked their friends to call.
The students were in Every Voice’s virtual summer fellowship in late June with other advocates from around the country when the news came in that the bill had passed the House and the Senate. For the New Hampshire students, it was a proud moment.
Now, student advocates in other states are taking inspiration from New Hampshire’s bill. Similar legislation has been filed in Connecticut, Illinois and Hawaii, and student movements are growing in Virginia. And after six years of trying, in January, Massachusetts passed a law ensuring campuses have up-to-date policies regarding sexual assault.
Millman said the experience has made him more optimistic about politics, and bipartisanship.
“It’s hard to put into words what it means,” Millman said. “It’s mind-boggling how impactful students were in getting this passed. It really is just a testament to how powerful student voices can be, especially in the legislative process on a local and state level.”
Eileen O’Grady covers education for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @eileenogrady27