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Rutgers Student Government Scuttles Bill Targeting Campus Sexual Assault

RUSA Votes Against Creating a Committee to Address Sexual Assault Issues on Campus
"Take Back the Night" march
2014 "Take Back the Night" March Heads Down College Ave. From George Street David Byrnes

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On September 24, the Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) voted down a bill that would have created a committee specifically to target the problem of campus sexual assualt. 

Had the bill passed, the committee would have centralized sexual assault advocacy efforts, scoping out tighter relationships with the university's Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance, the Rutgers Title IX Office and the annual Take Back the Night March.

The committee would have also distributed of sexual assault prevention literature, and overall get members of the student government involved with the issue.

“Sexual assault brutally violates someone’s basic human rights and is a prominent issue on campuses, including Rutgers University,” reads one of the tenents of the bill.

Rutgers Douglass junior Allie Williams championed the bill and  has spearheaded sexual assault advocacy both on campus and in student government.

"This is not an issue that can be pushed aside after only one year," Williams said following the bill's failure. "This affects thousands of students." 

Originally the bill intended for the sexual assault advocacy committee to be a "standing" committee, Williams said, given that it existed as an "ad hoc" committee last year.  But only two of the executive board's seven members supported the move, and the bill was revised.

In the Rutgers student government, standing committees are subject to a stricter set of standards than ad hoc, but also enjoy more privileges and autonomy.

For example, standing committees are harder to dissolve than ad hoc committees, and are more likely to be upgraded to permanent committees. Chairs of the permanent committees have a much greater say in RUSA's executive board. 

As the revised bill came up for a vote, different motions and amendments flew back and forth between RUSA members.

RUSA members Christina McGinnis proposed a motion to change the proposed committee from an ad hoc committee, back to a standing committee.

Almost immediately, RUSA Treasurer Vishal Patel responded with a motion to keep it as an ad hoc committee, adding that standing committees should generally have much broader goals, and that an advocacy committee of this kind would be "such a specific issue."

"And even long-term, this committee can be merged into another committee, so I don’t see this committee standing on its own," Patel added.

But many did not agree with Patel's statements, which were criticized in multiple opinion articles.

"That line of reasoning, in a nutshell, is exactly the problem with discussions about sexual violence: That it’s some kind of fringe, special-interest issue that only affects feminists or 'Douglass women' or those who may have had a personal traumatic experience," wrote Sabah Abassi, a former opinions editor at the students newspaper, the Daily Targum.

Abassi questioned why RUSA members did not see fit to use the committee structure "to address the rampant, widespread issue of sexual violence and assault on campus."

"A standing committee is only for issues that deal with long-term goals of interest to the entire student body — such as, apparently, the standing committee that was created last year for athletic affairs that passed with virtually no debate."

Svasti, an ex-officio member of RUSA who ran for the Vice President last year on a progressive platform including sexual assault advocacy, also made the point that the debate over the bill to create the athletics committee took "less than an hour" and "passed smoothly."

"So, this is a body that prioritizes football and t-shirts over the safety over some of our most marginalized," Svasti concluded.

McGinnis' motion to change the status to a standing committee garnered a majority vote, but the move to reduce it back to an ad hoc committee did not.  However, the ultimate vote on the bill still failed, despite garnering a majority of the votes cast.

RUSA members cast a total of fourteen yes votes and eight no votes.  Nine members present abstained from voting.

Unlike most bills, such as an ad hoc committee's creation, a standing committee needs two-thirds of members present to pass, rather than a simple majority vote.

Svasti, lamented what he said was a deliberately complicated and ardous process, saying the governing body had gotten "caught up in bureaucracy" and "the layers of heirarchy." 

Indeed, many of the student government's seemingly complicated governing document, meeting procedures, rules and regulations had long been vocal points of the organization's critics.

"It looks like structural procedure matters much more to a governing body like RUSA than the safety of Rutgers students," wrote Abassi in her Targum column. 

Mikayla Meyer, a spokesperson for the student assembly, said RUSA will still be taking steps to see how a committee focused on sexual assault could function within RUSA. 

"We are also strongly in support of the Division of Student Affairs’ campaign in regards to sexual assault prevention and have been working closely with Vice Chancellor Felicia McGinty who hasbeen leading this campaign," Meyer wrote.

The Rutgers Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Advocacy (VPVA) at Rutgers is hosting a screening of a film on the campus sex assault isssue, and Meyer said her organization is re-arranging its schedule to allow for members to attend.

"We have re-arranged our RUSA meeting this upcoming Thursday in an effort for RUSA to have a strong presence at the viewing of The Hunting Ground. It is important to keep in mind that everyone in RUSA has the best interests of the student body in mind when voting."

The free event is scheduled for October 1 at 7pm in the College Avenue Gym, and includes a conversation with Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, survivors and student activists featured in the documentary about rape on college campuses.

More information about VPVA is available at endsexualviolence.rutgers.edu, by telephone at 848-932-1181, or via email at vpva@echo.rutgers.edu.