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SUNY adopts 'affirmative consent' policy to combat campus sexual assaults

People walk on campus at the University at

People walk on campus at the University at Albany, in Albany, N.Y. on Sept. 24, 2014. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

State University of New York colleges at the urging of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have adopted a policy cracking down on campus sexual assaults, in part by embracing a uniform definition of consent.

The 64 state campuses will use "affirmative consent," also known as the "yes means yes" standard, which advocates say leaves less room for ambiguity in investigations than the common "no means no" definition.

The new SUNY policy, approved unanimously Thursday by the system's board of trustees in Manhattan, also includes a victims' bill of rights, immunity against drug and alcohol code of conduct violations for those who report sex crimes and retraining of college administrators and other employees.

Cuomo said he hopes the policy can eventually become state law and be implemented at New York's private schools.

"There has been an epidemic of sexual violence in this country that is truly disturbing," he said at the trustees' meeting. "It's plaguing our college campuses."

One out of four women in college is a sexual assault victim and fewer than 5 percent of incidents are reported to authorities, he said. LGBT and male students are also victimized, he said.

Cuomo called the policy "the most protective in the nation."

There were 238 sexual assaults reported across SUNY's 29 state-operated campuses -- a figure that doesn't include community colleges -- in 2013, the most recent data available. The outcomes ranged from criminal prosecution to determination that the allegation was unfounded, SUNY spokesman David Doyle said.

On Long Island, 15 rapes and 28 incidents of fondling were reported at Stony Brook University between 2011 and 2013. Farmingdale State College had one reported forcible sexual offense and the College of Old Westbury had two during the same three-year period.

Hajera Siddiq, 23, a Farmingdale State College student and member of a social justice group to combat sexual assault, applauded SUNY officials.

She said she has never felt unsafe, but "safety is something we as college students are entitled to and, really, we shouldn't even have to worry about it."

The SUNY changes come on the heels of California state legislation signed into law Sunday that also uses the affirmative consent definition and states that "lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent."

On the federal level, President Barack Obama last month launched the "It's On Us" initiative to raise awareness of the campus sexual assaults.

The SUNY resolution defines affirmative consent as a "clear, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity."

Linda Fairstein, who led the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan district attorney's office for 25 years, will oversee implementation of the SUNY policy.

Cuomo said the initiative is personal to him because he has three daughters, two in college.

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