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The right approach on campus sex assaults

College campus.

College campus. Credit: iStock

A recently adopted policy guides all 64 SUNY campuses on how to prevent and respond to sexual assaults. Now New York's 188 private colleges and universities should follow the same rules.

A bill proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would ensure that, starting at freshman orientation, the private institutions provide an awareness campaign about the rules of engagement for sexual activity. Throughout students' time on campus, they would know that sexual violence, which Cuomo called pervasive and disturbing, will be treated seriously.

A key part of the legislation defines consent to sexual relations -- and while that's a difficult task, at the very least it would get students to talk about their behavior. The law requires consent to be affirmative; it must be "clear, knowing and voluntary." Interpreting that in the fog of relationships and alcohol and drugs could be murky, but it surely would get refined along the way. While it could open the door to some false claims in university disciplinary tribunals, sexual assaults cannot be allowed to go unpunished.

Our biggest concern is that the bill doesn't require college administrators to report allegations of sexual violence to law enforcement. These are crimes, and the way to take them out of the shadows and reduce their stigma is to treat them like any other felony. Over and over again, stories have highlighted how name-brand institutions with strong self-interest kept incidents as quiet as possible. Federal law unfortunately pre-empts state law and college rules from requiring that sexual assaults be reported to law enforcement. That decision is left to the person alleging an assault. The federal law must be repealed.

Until then, Cuomo is pushing New York's colleges to reduce incidents of sexual violence and hold those institutions accountable.

It's a good start.