New Jersey State Senators’ recently reported deficiencies in protecting women in the political realm is similarly mirrored in the Legislature’s neglect in addressing discrimination and harassment on college campuses.
On December 2, 2015, then-Governor Chris Christie signed A4156 into law, which established a Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault (“the Task Force”). The Task Force’s purpose was to “study and make recommendations concerning sexual assault occurring on the campuses of institutions of higher education in the State.” Over three years later, on January 9, 2018, legislation was introduced in the Senate which established the Campus Sexual Assault Commission (“the Commission”) in the New Jersey Department of State. Bills and joint resolutions that established the Commission were ultimately signed into law by Governor Murphy on January 13, 2020.
However, on October 19, 2020, Governor Murphy approved S2584, which makes changes to membership and responsibilities of the Commission. The Commission is supposed to be made up of members chosen by the Governor and bipartisan leadership in both the Senate and Assembly.
In taking on the challenge of campus sexual assault, the State needed to give the Commission certain powers, responsibilities, and directives. Its first duty was to “further the work” of the existing Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault. While this may suggest that the Commission is merely a Task Force “B-team,” the Legislature went on to charge the new body with new responsibilities that have the potential for real change and the exercise of some significant power.
The Commission must also research issues facing New Jersey college students, policies implemented on campuses, and the behavior of those who commit sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking in the college campus environment. This research can include studies into anything as simple as the nature and legal definitions of sexual assault in the 21st century according to New Jersey law or something more complicated, like the individual protocols developed and utilized by colleges and universities throughout the State.
In dealing with the schools, the Commission must also oversee the implementation of Task Force recommendations and policies, as well as those of the Working Group on Safe and Inclusive Learning Environments, another State Department group within the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. The Commission also has the power and duty to add to the Task Force’s published report proposals where they see fit, based on their own research and work.
Perhaps most important among the Commission’s many duties, however, is working directly with the schools. Every 3 years, the Commission must help those universities and colleges to administer a “campus climate” survey which would measure campus attitudes towards the prevalence and nature of sexual assault, the effectiveness of policies, and the attitudes of administration, among other factors. These surveys would provide the institutions, the Commission, the Task Force, and the entire State with valuable information about sexual assault on college campuses, if administered properly and successfully.
When the legislation that initially established the Commission finally passed both houses of the Legislature, there was still a month left until it was officially approved in January 2020. The Commission’s members were supposed to be appointed so they could meet for the first time two months after its approval in January. That timeline almost perfectly coincided with the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, the Commission has been largely inactive with no major initiatives, proposals or changes implemented in any significant way. The Commission does not even appear on the New Jersey Department of State website and remains unmentioned on the website for the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. The members have not been named and apparently no work has been done.
As campuses have reopened, what will victims of campus sexual assault do while this Commission languishes in the quagmire of a sluggish state bureaucracy, challenged by the pandemic?
Those victims will be largely dependent on the individual policies of their institutions and Federal remedies through the U.S. Department of Education (“DoE”), which are in flux due to the recent change in administration. In fact, the DoE arguably faces a substantial institutional change, since former Secretary DeVos rolled back protections and avenues for survivors, a move that the Biden administration seeks to reverse. Biden’s nomination to head the DoE, Miguel Cardona, remains unconfirmed by the U.S. Senate, leaving the DoE in in a state of suspension, with unpredictable change on the horizon.
Many education professionals and institutions of higher learning have signaled that requests for sexual assault resources have only increased during the pandemic as students have returned to classes. In fact, many have been alarmed by the increased risk of stalking for survivors as they are confined to their homes or dorms. Another threat has risen in the increase of online harassment due to classes and school activities moving online. Sexual assault and care services at colleges and universities are being stretched thin by increased demand and lack of alternative options for survivors. Financial strain during the pandemic, as well as decreased privacy for those who live with families or roommates, have both contributed to the narrow scope of options for survivors beyond their school’s services.
The pandemic has also raised complex questions about sexual assault that present new problems for the Commission to consider, whenever it decides to get to work. With Schools unprepared or unwilling to handle virtual or “offsite” harassment, how and when should a case be delegated to the university versus the local authorities? What protections will schools give its students in these cases and how much cooperation ought there to be between the state, local authorities, and universities? These questions and more remain unanswered as the Commission on Campus Sexual Assault remains unstaffed and inactive.
Joey Wapelhorst, who wrote this blog, is a recent graduate of Fordham University where he studied Political Science and Accounting with a focus on Constitutional Law and American Government. He has worked on multiple New Jersey Congressional campaigns and in NJ’s 38th Legislative District Office. He is currently choosing where to attend law school in the fall.