The State University of New York has gone on record in support of a bill to strengthen campus policies for reporting sexual assaults. SUNY joined U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in support of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. As part of our Focus on Education reporting WBFO's Eileen Buckley met with University at Buffalo officials to discuss the school's policy.
"We're in the business of education, so our job is to education students and make sure they understand how to handle situations, what to do, and unfortunately if you are assaulted, how to handle that and what your options might be," said Barbara Ricotta, UB's Associate Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students.
This past May the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released a list of colleges and universities that are in violation of Title IX -- drawing attention to sexual violation on campuses. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs.
Here in Buffalo, UB's Ricotta tells WBFO News the University has a "very transparent" policy to assist students in understanding their options in the event of a sexual assault.
"We're, I think, light years ahead. I'm a little biased here, but I think we are light years ahead of other schools. We've been working on this topic for years and I think we're in a very good position," said Ricotta.
Four schools in New York State are on the federal probe list. Closest to our region is Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. A student filed a complaint of an alleged rape by a football player of rape and accuses the college of conducting its own investigation to protect the student athlete. But at the University at Buffalo the school makes sure there is no special treatment.
"There is no preference. We have one disciplinary system for all students regardless of what their status is," stated Sharon Nolan Weiss, director of UB's Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. She also serves as coordinator of Title IX at the University.
Nolan Weiss said there has been more federal action and oversight in the past several years. She traces it to April of 2011 when the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights offered guidance to higher ed. She referred to it as a 'dear colleague' letter.
"I did feel very good when that 'dear colleague' letter came out," said Nolan Weiss. "My office met with the Office of Judicial Affairs and our University Police Department really to review our policies, our procedures and standards and we we found we were already doing very well in terms of what the United States Department of Education was expecting colleges to do."
Back in 2008 -- following a couple of attacks on the campus and a rape of a freshman -- UB stepped up campus safety -- spending more than $5 million. Dean of students Ricotta said the school has very good partnerships when it comes to the safety of its students on its campuses.
"Students are our business and that's what important to us," said Ricotta. "Because we have had such a great partnership for so long we meet often, we talk about how to make changes, what works, what doesn't work."
Still, this federal probe highlights the issue that some students might not report the crime to police, and instead report it only to the school.
"It is really up to the victim, so a person has an option to file a report with the University Police, they have an option to file a complaint with the Office of Judicial Affairs or to complain to my office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. If they do file with University Police, that's obviously a criminal complaint," said Nolan Weiss.
With so much awareness Ricotta said UB has had an increase of reporting. But Ricotta noted UB police will assist students in reporting an assault or rape to either the Buffalo or Amherst Police Departments.
"If the crime happened in Amherst or Buffalo and they need to report in those areas we will assist them in doing that," said Ricotta.
"I would feel a 100 percent comfortable in reporting it," said Megan Messer, second year UB student. She was sitting outside on the South campus in Buffalo to ask her about reporting a sexual assault.
"I would say take it to the actual police, because honestly, the campus police there is only so much they can do. I mean, I'm sure they could also contact the police, so maybe if you don't feel comfortable going to right the police, contact the campus police and they could it for you, but I personally would, if it was something that serious, would go right to the police," said Messer.
UB Molly Briggs, a second year dental student, was also at the South campus. She wasn't so certain she would report it. "If something happened to me, I would probably keep it to myself. But if something happen to a friend I would encourage them to go to the police," said Briggs.
WBFO News asked Briggs why she wouldn't report the crime if it happened to her. "I'd say I'm pretty personal about my own business, so I keep everything to myself.
Both Messer and Briggs say the University does a very good job in alerting students to situations and emergencies on their campuses through text alerts.
"Something happened at my apartment complex on campus last year, and I mean I got a text every 30 minutes, so I knew to stay in my apartment," said Briggs.
U.S. Senator Gillibrand and Western New York Congressman Tom Reed are supporting bipartisan legislation designed to curb sexual assaults on the nation's college campuses. The Campus Accountability & Safety Act contains several provisions which Nolan Weiss said UB is already following some items in the proposed bill.
"There are other parts of the proposed legislation that have been recommended by the White House Task Force that we also think would be a good idea. For example, climate surveys -- we have a vendor now that provides our Haven training, which is a mandatory training for all incoming freshman and transfer students," said Nolan Weiss.
The Haven training requires UB students to take on hour-long, on-line, interactive training program to discuss sexual assault, relationships, consent, stalking, domestic and dating violence and by-stander intervention.
As UB's footprint expands with future completion of a medical school in downtown Buffalo -- both Nolan Weiss and Ricotta said it is a challenge making sure students at all three locations remain part of the campus culture -- but they now can rely heavily on technology to reach everyone when it comes to campus safety.