Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell went to Manhattanville College in Purchase on Tuesday to show her support of a four-point plan proposed by Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino to improve Gov. Cuomo’s campus sexual assault bill, which is pending in the State Legislature.
“While we can all agree with the governor that rape and sexual assault are serious issues on college campuses, I, like County Executive Astorino, believe more needs to be done to strengthen the rights of the victims and protect the integrity of cases,” said Odell who supported Cuomo’s bill when it was introduced. “County Executive Astorino’s proposal is smart and addresses some of the finer points of the legislation. His plan is not adversarial to the pending bill, it enhances the bills effectiveness.”
Astorino said his chief concern with the proposed state bill id that it imposes an unworkable new standard of “affirmative consent,” which would then be adjudicated by campus “conduct commissions,” with the result of adding more confusion, rather than clarity, to an already complex issue. Cuomo has yet to receive the support of either party to either stale legislative body for his new paradigm that conflicts with state penal law. Astorino said his plan seeks to protect victims and prevent colleges from adjudicating sex crimes.
Under Astorino’s plan, colleges would be required to report an alleged rape or sexual assault to local police immediately. Failing to do so would result in a Class B Misdemeanor for any college employee that had direct knowledge of the alleged sex crime but failed to report it to police.
In addition, colleges would be required to provide for an independent victim advocate by entering into formal agreements with state-certified rape crisis agencies. A 1-800 hotline phone number would be prominently displayed throughout campuses and provided to all students at the beginning of each school year. A student could directly call the IVA or would be put in touch with the IVA by college officials to ensure the victim receives support and advice from an independent advocate without any potential conflict of interest.
Also, Astorino is calling for police departments to be required to incorporate “Start by Believing” training into their instructional curriculum, which aims to improve trust and cooperation between victims and investigators.
Astorino is proposing a Victims’ Bill of Rights that addresses protocols on rape kits and exams, and interactions with the colleges, police and victim advocates.
“Colleges are good at educating young adults,” said Astorino. “They are not good at investigating and prosecuting violent felonies, especially sexual assaults. That’s not their job. Not only are colleges ill-equipped to investigate such crimes, but an inherent conflict of interest exists when colleges attempt to do so. Colleges have a right to create their own code of personal conduct for students, but they no longer should be defining and adjudicating crimes. That should be left to police and district attorneys.”
While no college is located within the borders of Putnam County, Odell said that Putnam is just as invested in the protection of college students.
“Putnam County has an educated workforce,” said Odell, “I represent families who send their children to college. As a mother of two children who have gone to college, I can tell you that parents expect a college or university to give their child an education. If there is a crime, especially one of rape or sexual assault, you expect law enforcement to handle it, not a college official. I wholeheartedly think that an independent victim advocate should be readily available so a victim has immediate access to trusted support and advice. I also agree that the investigation of any report of rape or sexual assault should be handled exclusively through law enforcement agencies not college security officers.”
During the press conference Astorino cited recent alleged sexual assaults at Hobart& William Smith Colleges in Upstate New York and Stony Brook in Long Island, as examples of cases that were terribly mishandled by the colleges.
Sarah Tubbs, who was treated poorly by Stony Brook officials and even forced to “prosecute” her alleged attacker, attended the press conference and supported Astorino’s plan.
“I learned the hard way that colleges have no business handling rape cases. I honestly feel as though I was victimized twice, first by my attacker and then by the systemic failures of my college,” said Tubbs. “I also think having a caring, independent advocate on my side could have changed everything.”