How students worked behind the scenes to make New Hampshire’s campus sexual assault law a reality

CONCORD, N.H. – On a Thursday morning in late February 2020, first-year Dartmouth College student David Millman traveled from Hanover to Concord to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He hitched a ride with State Rep. Garrett Muscatel, who was on his way to work.

Millman and other advocates gathered in Room 100 of the New Hampshire State House. On the table was Senate Bill 679 that, if passed, would provide comprehensive protections to victims of campus sexual assault.

In his testimony, Millman recalled overhearing a male floormate, who already had several Title IX reports filed against him, talking about some of Millman’s female friends, saying, “Let’s get them so drunk that they can’t say no.”

“The more I talk to people, the more I realize that it’s not a unique experience at all. Everyone I talk to has either been impacted or knows someone who has been impacted by sexual violence,” Millman told committee members. “This bill does a lot of amazing things, but ensuring a fair and timely investigation, and the counseling that this bill provides in particular, would have vastly improved the experiences of the victims on my floor.”

In January, New Hampshire’s bill relative to sexual assault and sexual misconduct in institutions of higher education went into effect, giving the Granite State what experts say is one of the most comprehensive laws of its kind in the country. The bill, which was signed in July, passed in six months with bipartisan support against seemingly unlikely odds during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was really amazing to see just how many student leaders were really dedicated to improving the climate on college campuses,” said Pamela Keilig, public policy specialist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

The students who led the effort are part of a volunteer-run organization called the Every Voice Coalition, founded by Massachusetts college students in 2014, now in several states.

“It’s our deeply-held belief that those closest to the pain should be closest to the power, and students and survivors should be part of crafting their own solution,” said John Gabrieli, one of the co-founders of Every Voice. “As opposed to students and survivors sitting around and waiting for legislators or policymakers to solve this problem, students and survivors were able to take this problem into their own hands.”

Nationwide, 20.4% of women on college campuses, 5.1% of men and 20.3% of transgender and non-binary students experienced sexual assault in 2019, according to data from the Association of American Universities. Under the federal Clery Act, New Hampshire colleges are required to disclose statistics on crimes, including sexual assault and dating violence.

Many victim advocates feel that recent federal Title IX guidelines from former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos leave gaps where fewer protections are guaranteed to survivors. The looser guidelines give schools more freedom to offer informal resolution processes, to use a case standard that would demand heavier proof of guilt, and loosen the rules around cross-examination during a live hearing. New Hampshire’s “Every Voice Bill” was crafted to fill some of the gaps and provide protections for survivors where it isn’t specified in DeVos’s guidelines.

New Hampshire’s legislation requires institutions to work more closely with local crisis centers and law enforcement, providing anti-retaliation protections for reporting parties, mandating transparent data collection and awareness programming. It also requires fair and timely investigations, awareness and prevention training for students and staff.

“This legislation was so significant because these best practices had never been codified into law before, and so this was an incredible opportunity to really strengthen the protections for sexual assault survivors on college campuses,” said Keilig. “The guidelines are often subject to change based on the federal rules and regulations. This created a really significant opportunity to make sure that the practices were codified here in New Hampshire to create some stability here depending if federal regulations change.”

Students began drafting the legislation in the fall of 2019. It was signed into law eight months later. For those getting involved in the legislative process for the first time, it was an unexpected success.

Dartmouth junior Sophia Miller joined Every Voice after a classmate invited her to a meeting on campus. Miller had high hopes for the bill, but also knew that Massachusetts students were trying unsuccessfully to pass similar legislation for six years.

“Knowing that history, I was definitely a little bit surprised we were able to pass it,” Miller said. “Having the bill pass so quickly, to me it felt like people were listening and taking it to heart, which was great.”

That fall, Gabrieli drove up to Dartmouth to meet students. They would sit around a table in one of the college’s study rooms for hours, talking about what protections were needed, going through the legal language and beginning to write the legislation. They got similar input from students at Keene State, UNH, Rivier University and SNHU.

Many people helped with the drafting process, including experts from the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and N.H. Campus Consortium Against Sexual and Interpersonal Violence, sexual assault forensic nurses, researchers, and university administrators.

State Sen. Martha Hennessey, who agreed to sponsor the bill, was almost too busy to take it on. But she said her own experiences as an assault survivor and member of the first class of women at Dartmouth College, led her to agree, and so did the dedication of the students.

“Having young people who are passionate about this subject go to as many House members as they could and talk about this bill made a lot of impact,” Hennessey said. “It was young people who were taking this on themselves with incredible professionalism and grace and inclusiveness that I think was essential to this process in many ways.”

Fourteen Democrats and six Republicans co-signed the bill. It was important to Every Voice to get bipartisan voices backing their efforts.

“We feel very strongly that sexual violence is a non-partisan issue,” Gabrieli said. “No matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, you or someone you know almost certainly has been impacted by sexual violence. We support taking a common sense approach that this is a public health issue.”

The bill passed the senate unanimously, but just when it was set to head to the House, unforeseen circumstances struck. COVID-19 arrived in New Hampshire in March, shutting down the legislature until June, with bills backlogging.

“Everything went virtual, it wasn’t clear if the whole session was going to be ended, it wasn’t clear if any more actions were going to be taken,” Gabrieli said. “That was a hard blow for all the students and advocates and survivors who worked on this, because progress had been so strong and everything was going well.”

In June, the bill got a second chance at life. Senators circumvented missed deadlines brought about by the pandemic by packing SB 679 into an omnibus bill (HB 705) with other sexual assault legislation that had already passed the House.

When they heard the bill was back in action, the students, working from home, hurriedly began a push to phone all of New Hampshire’s 400 state reps and 24 senators. They made a massive spreadsheet and asked their friends to call.

“I was messaging all my friends like, ‘hey there’s this bill, can you please call in?’” Millman said. “My friends were not leaving me on read, they were all excited to call too, because I think everyone cares about this issue.”

The students were in Every Voice’s virtual summer fellowship in late June with other advocates from around the country when the news came in that the bill had passed the House and the Senate. For the New Hampshire students, it was a proud moment.

“For the state to take a step that not a lot of states have taken so far and to pass this legislation, to me it feels like legislators are listening to student voices and that is really gratifying,” Miller said.

Now, student advocates in other states are taking inspiration from New Hampshire’s bill. Similar legislation has been filed in Connecticut, Illinois and Hawaii, and student movements are growing in New Mexico and Virginia. And after six years of trying, Massachusetts passed “An Act relative to sexual violence on higher education campuses” in January.

Millman said the experience has made him more optimistic about politics, and bipartisanship.

“It’s hard to put into words what it means,” Millman said. “It’s mind-boggling how impactful students were in getting this passed. It really is just a testament to how powerful student voices can be, especially in the legislative process on a local and state level.”

Eileen O’Grady covers education for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @eileenogrady27

A version of this story appeared on USA TODAY on FEBRUARY 18, 2021