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Advocates push bill to improve sexual misconduct awareness and prevention on Nevada campuses

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Sarah Peterson, a junior at University of Nevada, Reno, said she’s tired of comforting friends and other sorority members after rapes, sexual assaults and instances of harassment. Her comments were part of testimony provided March 30 to legislators in support of Assembly Bill 245

“I support this bill because I work on campus in the Greek life community as a kind of peer victim advocate and I am overwhelmed with how many people there are to serve with how little resources we have,” Peterson said. 

AB 245, introduced by a bipartisan group of sponsors and co-sponsors in the Assembly, and sponsored by a lone senator – Republican Lisa Krasner of Reno – would overhaul the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct at Institutions of Higher Education and refashion it into the Commission on Higher Education Campus Safety. Nevada’s higher education campuses would also be required to provide programs on awareness and prevention of sexual assault and other forms of power-based violence. 

To some, AB245 may appear to be a rehash of Senate Bill 347, passed during the 2021 legislative session. That’s the bill that created the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct and set requirements for grievances and sexual assault awareness training. 

Advocates said SB347 hasn’t been as effective as they hoped, and AB245 would help to address lingering challenges. 

For example, SB347 required the Task Force to complete a campus climate survey on sexual misconduct and produce a report and recommendations by the end of March 2022. The task force members approved survey questions in March and planned to have the results by spring 2024 – two years behind the date outlined in the law. 

Serena Evans, policy director for the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, also spoke in favor of the bill. She said the 2021 bill was falling short. 

“While the task force has been operating to the best of its ability, it was determined that it was falling short of the intended purpose in the original bill from 2021. By clearly defining the membership makeup of the committee, the task force will have more ‘teeth’ and accountability,” Evans said. “While it is not defined in the statute, we hope that with the new members, the task force will focus on prevention, education, and responses to sexual misconduct, not just the climate survey.”

UNR’s Student Services has already done several climate surveys on sexual conduct and campus safety, the latest in 2018. Results from that survey show that of students ages 18-25 7% reported having been raped, 10% reported sexual assault coercion and 23% reported unwanted touching. Women, students within the Greek system and those who identify with diverse sexuality are at highest risk. 

Despite knowing that sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence are present, and in some cases common, on campus, little data exists on the true number of incidents. 

Crime statistics from UNR’s annual security report shows rape as the second most commonly reported crime on the main campus, behind burglary. In 2021, seven rapes were reported on campus or in student housing, 12 instances of fondling, three domestic assaults, nine stalking and 15 dating violence. 

Those are merely the crimes that are reported to campus police. UNR’s climate survey found that the vast majority of sexual assaults happen off campus and one-third of those assaulted don’t tell anyone.

Peterson said whatever the numbers show, it’s likely many more. 

“I’ve had many women tell me that they didn’t understand that what they went through was classified as sexual assault until after I presented to their organization on the topic,” she said.

Evans agreed. 

“Our data collection in Nevada honestly sucks and police reports don’t give even a sliver of the full picture,” she said.

A provision in the 2021 bill allowed the Board of Regents to collect data from each campus’ Title IX office on sexual misconduct. However, regents would need to set that requirement, and students would have to report incidents as well. 

There’s broad support among student groups at campuses across the state for the bill, according to ASUN Director of Government Affairs Amanda Vaskov. ASUN is UNR’s student government organization.

Vaskov said student governments haven’t been as active in legislative work in the past, but student leaders from across the state’s higher education campuses workshopped this bill together. She said that teamwork and engagement will likely lead to more student action in the future.

K-12 programs also addressed

“because having training on domestic and sexual violence is not a requirement, it is often not a priority.”

The bill would also expand support systems and procedures for cases of sexual assault on K-12 campuses throughout the state. 

One section in AB245 requires all K-12 schools to partner with a community organization to assist students dealing with power-based violence including sexual assault and domestic violence. 

The agreement would allow school personnel to receive training from those organizations and get assistance in developing policies and procedures for responding to reports of sexual misconduct. 

Serena Evans said her organization already provides these trainings for school counselors, nurses and other personnel, but there’s no requirement. 

“Those who attend our trainings likely do so out of personal interest,” Evans said. “We are not reaching nearly as many folks as needed. It is pretty hard for schools and districts to say they flat-out do not care about power-based violence. However, it comes down to capacity. And because having training on domestic and sexual violence is not a requirement, it is often not a priority.”

UNR sophomore Nicole Garduno, who also spoke in support of the bill, said she was assaulted in her junior year of high school. 

“Many people that I knew in my high school, who unfortunately went through a similar experience that I did, did not get any help. So what was the use of asking for help if I knew I was not going to be supported?” she said. 

Garduno said her school didn’t offer any resources or education on sexual assault or power-based violence, but if it had perhaps she may not have been assaulted in the first place. 

In addition to prevention efforts, Evans said these partnerships with schools will provide the resources students who are victims need following an assault.

“Having the student and their family go through these reporting procedures without the emotional support of a victim advocate is not a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach and leaves the student/victim-survivor on their own to navigate the traumatic and vulnerable aftermath of violence,” she said. 

“Experiencing violence interferes with an individual’s ability to focus and succeed in their academic and personal life, which unfortunately increases the risk of future victimizations. Early intervention is the key to overall success.” 

AB245 has already been heard by the Assembly Education Committee. Lawmakers and advocates are working on some final amendments to the bill this week before reviewing in a work session in the coming week.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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