For the past year, Lotte Parsons ’22 and Sarah Byars-Waller ’22 have been volunteering for the Every Voice Coalition in Maine to write a bill protecting students who are victims of domestic violence on Maine college campuses. The pair works alongside fellow college students India McNeill of Bates College and Jen Butler of the University of Southern Maine, with Parsons and McNeill serving as co-directors of the project and Byars-Waller and Butler supporting the project as volunteers.
Parsons worked as a fellow with Every Voice, a national organization dedicated to providing support for victims of sexual assault, this past summer and was kept on during the year to continue their work.
The Every Voice ME Bill (LD1727) seeks to provide students with free access to medical and legal support services, as well as anti-retaliation protections. It would also offer trained confidential advising services that would inform reporting students of their rights, their options going forward and extend that “universal, evidence-based prevention and response training” to students. In addition, it would collect and publicly publish anonymous data on campus sexual violence throughout the state.
As of now, similar bills have been enacted in five states, and the coalition is hoping to bring it to as many states as possible. The bill’s emphasis in on survivor experience.
“One thing that was really important to me is that the bill doesn’t focus on anything punitive. So it’s entirely about survivor experiences and survivor support, and then also prevention measures,” Parsons said.
Parsons became one of the co-state directors of the bill after spending last summer as a fellow with Every Voice Maine.
Aware of her former work at Bowdoin with Safe Space, an organization dedicated to providing student support to victims of sexual assault on campus, Parsons reached out to fellow senior Byars-Waller about this project. The two share the goal of making an impact and being a voice for survivors of assault on college campuses.
As a volunteer, Byars-Waller’s work has primarily focused on raising awareness about the bill and gathering student testimonies.
“[We tried] to ask any students who feel particularly moved by this … if they wanted to advocate for it while it was in a hearing to give more voices to the cause, to humanize it a little bit and create bigger stakes and make people realize why it’s so important,” said Byars Waller.
Byars-Waller also stressed the importance of colleges being more transparent in regard to sexual violence on their campuses.
“The lack of transparency about the resources that are available and the statistics that are actually happening in real life on these campuses is making it so difficult, especially for the people who have gone through situations of assault,” Byars-Waller said.
The student involvement and input in the bill aims to reflect the needs of students in higher education across the state of Maine.
“I definitely saw overwhelming support for the confidential resource advisors. I think that’s something that we consistently hear feedback along the lines of, ‘I wish that I’d had that when I was going through this experience,’ or people saying that they want current students to have that security of knowing someone exists in that position,” Parsons said. “That’s something that’s really resonated with a lot of students that we’ve spoken to.”
The College currently does provide confidential resource advisors, but the bill would provide them legal privileges and ensure that all Maine higher education institutions have these resources and proper training. Legal privileges mean that these resources are protected from being subpoenaed.
“What I want students to know is that our biggest goal is to let students be seen throughout every part of this process,” Byars-Waller said.
Several social service organizations in Maine including the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence and Pine Tree Legal Assistance have also backed the bill.
Despite this support for the bill, Bowdoin, along with the rest of the Maine Independent College Association (MICA), opposed this bill, citing concerns that it would increase difficulty for students to report incidences of sexual assault. However, Byars-Waller strongly criticized this position.
“I feel it’s rather dismissive … when it’s students’ actual lived experiences, and the administration and staff at Bowdoin and Bates and Colby only know so little about the things that students go through and see every day,” Byars-Waller said. “I don’t feel like colleges and their employees and their staff should be the people that are speaking for students and what is actually working for students. This is a student-composed piece of legislation. Students have been working on this legislation for months alongside people who are actually in law and know how legislation and bills work,” Byars-Waller said.
Despite the lack of support from the College and other local peer institutions, the Bill was passed by the Educational Cultural Affairs Committee and is sponsored by President of the state Senate, Troy Jackson (D). It is now entering the next stage of the legislation process, to the senate floor.
Associate Director of the Sexuality, Women and Gender Center Rachel Reinke did not take a stance on the legislation, but she spoke to the importance of holding this broader conversation around sexual violence on campus.
“I know that there is always, always more to be done to think about supporting survivors on college campuses, because we know how much gendered violence is perpetuated on college campuses,” Reinke said. “I think it’s important to be thinking about on [college] campuses specifically.”