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R.I. commission meets to address campus sexual assault

Rep. Ackerman elected chairwoman, University not represented on 13-member commission

A special House commission held its first meeting to discuss the issue of sexual assault on college campuses in Rhode Island Sept. 28. The 13-member commission elected Rep. Mia Ackerman, D-Cumberland and Lincoln, as its chairwoman and Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, D-Providence, as its vice chairman.

Ackerman stated two main goals for the commission: to reduce the number of incidents of sexual assault on campuses across the state and to reduce or eliminate the barriers to reporting incidents of assault.

Aside from the chairwoman and vice chairman, the commission also includes Rep. Doreen Marie Costa, R-North Kingstown and Exeter; Rhode Island State Police Superintendent Col. Steven O’Donnell; Attorney General Peter Kilmartin; Cumberland Police Chief Col. John Desmarais, Rhode Island College Interim Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Scott Kane; Johnson and Wales University Director of Student Conduct Claire Hall; Day One Sexual Assault Treatment Provider Peg Langhammer; R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Deb DeBare; sexual assault survivor Jane Johnson; University of Rhode Island police officer Maj. Michael Jagoda and Title IX Coordinator at Providence College James Campbell.

The University is not represented on the commission. “The commission has only 13 members. You can’t have everybody. But I definitely want to hear from Brown,” Ackerman told The Herald.

The commission will hold its next meeting on Oct. 26. During the meeting, members will hear from various survivors of campus sexual assaults. Ackerman said she hopes University administrators will attend future meetings and present on the issue.

The commission’s first meeting was held just a week after the University released results of one of the largest-ever sexual assault surveys. The report revealed that 25 percent of undergraduate women at Brown indicated having experienced sexual assault, which includes attempted or completed non-consensual penetration or non-consensual sexual touching by force or incapacitation. Approximately 84 percent of those who were sexually touched by force did not report the incident.

“Those numbers are alarmingly high,” Ackerman said in a Sept. 28 press release. “We’ll look at the causes, the frequency and the conditions under which these incidents happen. We’ll decide what can be done about it. But this has to stop.”

In January, Ackerman introduced a bill requiring institutions of higher education to report allegations of sexual assault to law enforcement. But victims of sexual assault raised concerns that such a law would instead deter victims from reporting their experiences to their universities, the Associated Press reported Sunday.

“The initial thought behind this was that assault was a crime and should be handled by those with plenty of experiences … but what I didn’t realize is how truly complex the issue is,” Ackerman said.

A long process of research and discussion followed the introduction of the bill in January, Ackerman said. This included not only meeting with stakeholders from law enforcement and victim advocate groups, but also hosting a round-table discussion with higher education institutions.

“It’s been a long road that’s brought me here today,” Ackerman said. “I could have just taken the easy way, put the bill in and let the chips fall where they may, but that wouldn’t have served anybody.”

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