Students lead a push for new consent policies at BSU and Minnesota State

Body: 

BEMIDJI—A student-led push to revise Minnesota State's definition of sexual consent could succeed this spring.

Last week, Bemidji State University's student senate unanimously recommended the school update its sexual violence policy to include "affirmative consent," a move that would tighten the standard from the absence of a "no" to an unambiguous "yes" that can be revoked at any time. A current dating relationship or past sexual relationship wouldn't prove consent, either, nor would it be the basis for future consent.

The move dovetails with a broader push to implement the same policy at Minnesota State's 37 colleges and universities, and the system's board of trustees could vote to implement it as early as March.

"This is something that would definitely benefit students because, if there are sexual assault cases, if there are sexual violence cases, this would help the university investigators and help the victim as well," said Eshfaq Ullah, BSU's student senate president.

Ullah serves on the board of Students United, a statewide student advocacy group that endorsed the change last fall and got the ball rolling on the updated policy.

"It all came from students," Ullah said.

Lexy Byler, a Minnesota State University Moorhead student and vice chair of Students United, said the policy aims to remove all doubt that people engaging in sex are willing participants.

"You shouldn't be feeling like there's any question about it," she said. "It's trying to eliminate that gray area."

BSU administrators still need to sign off on the student senate's measure. Scott Faust, a university spokesperson, said BSU President Faith Hensrud and other leaders are interested in and supportive of the student initiative's intent.

Minnesota State's existing sexual violence policy was adopted in 2004 and later updated to further define consent and add language about stalking. BSU's is virtually identical to it, and was last reviewed in September 2016.

BSU staff reported more than 0 but fewer than 10 sexual assaults there in 2016, the most recent year for which data was available on the school's website. (The school doesn't specify numbers between 0 and 10 to protect identities.)

Byler said Students United has been working on affirmative consent for at least three years but it's been their No. 1 priority this year. She expects it'll pass in March, in part because of momentum from the nationwide #MeToo movement to end sexual violence.

"You can't ignore the climate right now in the United States," she said. "This is something that has really wide support among our students."

Affirmative consent more widespread

Antioch College in Ohio was the first to implement affirmative consent language, in 1991, to much ridicule. But it's becoming the norm now.

California made it mandatory for their colleges in 2014, and New York did the same a year later. Today, well over a thousand U.S. colleges have implemented similar policies, including the University of Minnesota, in 2015.

Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center, which serves the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said asking permission for sex may not come naturally to older generations, but college students seem to get it.

"From our educational data, we know that many of our students coming into our campus believe in asking for and getting consent," she said.

Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research for the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said affirmative consent is "a model for ideal communication between sexual partners" but it makes for bad college policy.

"There is consensual sex that happens without that due diligence," she said.

Harris said such policies are especially fraught because compared with the criminal justice system, it's relatively easy to be punished for a student conduct violation. Most colleges use the "preponderance of the evidence" standard and don't guarantee access to a lawyer or the right to question the accuser.

"Students can be expelled from school often with very little process," Harris said. "I wonder whether they've truly thought through the implications."

Josh Verges at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service partner, contributed to this story.