Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, left, presents House Bill 158, which would require colleges and universities to adopt a comprehensive policy regarding the institution's response to sexual assault for college students during a meeting of House Judiciary B Committee while committee member Jill Ford, R-Madison, listens, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, March 3, 2020. The measure passed the committee as legislators face a deadline for committees to report on general bills originating in their own house. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

All Mississippi colleges and universities would have to adopt comprehensive sexual assault response policies under a House bill called the “Sexual Assault Response for College Students Act.”

Mississippi is one of numerous states considering such legislation. The bill would require schools to adapt to new federal laws and policies to combat a major, often-ignored group of crimes. Mississippi schools now have a hodgepodge of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual exploitation and stalking policies. Some do relatively well, while others provide scant opportunity for survivors to report crimes or to get physical, mental and other help.

House Judiciary A Chairwoman Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, has introduced the bill year after year, only to see it die without a vote in the Senate. Cockerham has worked with student assault survivors, parents and university officials for years and hopes this year it will pass.

“Students have come to me … Parents have called me in tears,” Cockerham said. “… I don’t want to talk to another student about their experience – how they didn’t know who to call or where to get help. I just want to protect our students.”

The measure would also require school policies to define what consent to sex means – and when it cannot be given – and applies to rapes and assaults on and off campus.

“Currently, an American woman who attends college is more likely to be a victim of sexual assault than someone who doesn’t,” said Rep. Dana McLean, R-Columbus, a co-sponsor of the bill.

“College-aged women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than robbed,” McLean told House colleagues. “Law enforcement officials at 30% of institutions of higher education receive no training on how to respond to reports of sexual violence and 73% of institutions of higher education have no protocols on how the institution and law enforcement can work together to respond.”

The measure would require schools to adopt policies that adhere to federal and state laws, train staff and provide ways for people to confidentially report sexual assault. It would require the schools to provide support – physical and mental health services – and to publish policies and resources and make them known to students.

Cockerham said the measure would also improve reporting and tracking of sexual violence on campus. There is a dearth of such reporting and tracking nationwide and in Mississippi.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, over 26% of female undergraduates have experienced rape or sexual assault and nearly 6% of all students have experienced stalking since entering college. Yet, because of a lack of services or awareness or belief nothing would be done, only 20% of female student sexual assault survivors report the crimes to law enforcement.

Cockerham said the bill, providing some standardization of schools’ policies and law, would also help those falsely accused by providing better protocols for dealing with such reports.

The bill – which has passed committee and is now before the full House – would provide a consistent definition of sexual consent across universities that adheres to federal and state laws.

In the bill, consent is defined as “words or actions that show a voluntary agreement to sexual activity.” It also notes that that a lack of verbal or physical resistance or a person’s consent to past sexual activity does not constitute consent and a person can withdraw consent at any time.

The bill states consent cannot be given or implied if:
– The person is incapacitated due to use of alcohol or drugs
– The person is asleep or unconscious
– The person is under the age of consent
– The person is incapacitated due to a mental disability

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.