By Robert Creenan
On Thursday, March 3, Kathy Hochul, the current Lieutenant Governor of New York, came to Canisius College to discuss sexual assault; a stop on a college campus tour across New York State to promote legislation titled “Enough is Enough” targeting the prevalent issue.
Dr. Kathleen Dierenfield originally asked Hochul to come to Canisius as a guest lecturer in her Women in the Western World class. “It’s Women’s History Month and she’s the most powerful woman in the state. I didn’t think she’d say yes,” said Dierenfield and was surprised when, “her office got back to me to say, yes.”
What was originally supposed to take place in a classroom moved to the Grupp Fireside Lounge after the Women and Gender Studies Program approved the event and opened it up to the whole campus. The speech received support from student groups and faculty across campus after the event was formally announced, including support from the History Department, Honors Program, and the Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library, as well as College Archives and Special Collections.
In near capacity Grupp Fireside Lounge, the audience waited patiently while reviewing pamphlet on “Enough is Enough” legislation. This law has seven main points in it to fight campus sexual assault. It contains a statewide definition of affirmative consent and a student bill of rights campuses must distribute to students. It also requires training for administrators, staff, and students. Also, an amnesty policy is in place encouraging students to report incidents by granting them immunity for certain campus violations. Campuses must submit incidents of reported sexual violence to the State Education Department and first responders will notify the victims of their right to contact outside law enforcement. Finally, the law will see the formation of a new sexual assault victims unit of the New York State Police.
After a warm welcome to the College, Hochul took the podium eager to explain her passion for public service. She started off mentioning how there still aren’t a lot of women involved with Buffalo politics, relating that to her first political position which was running for the Hamburg town board in 1994. “I was 35 years old, a wife with two kids, and I didn’t think I was qualified for this position. But one of the other candidates for town council was a 22-year-old recent Fredonia graduate who lived with his parents. If he felt he was qualified to do it, why not me?” They both ended up serving on the board for 13 years, until Hochul became the Erie County Clerk in 2007. Interestingly enough, the young Fredonia graduate was Thomas Quatroche, who has now risen to the position of CEO at Erie County Medical Center.
Using herself as an example of what is possible, Hochul pointed out that women were holding themselves back from success in the public realm. Currently, only 25 percent of members in New York’s State Legislature are women. Interestingly, the number of female Administrative Officers has been stuck at 13 percent for 30 years. She said public service is still a calling and a noble cause, despite public opinion about it.
Hochul was personable, using her own memory and the experience of those around her to convey the importance of the gravity of sexual assault – especially on college campuses. During her first week of freshman year at Syracuse University five rapes were reported, which Hochul said left her parent’s worried for her well-being. All of those reported rapes were committed by strangers, a different trend than seen in the current situation.
The statistics are grim, according to Hochul: one in five reported rapes are done by people the victims know. Moreover, 90 percent of all sexual assaults on college campuses are committed by a minority of three percent of the students. The term Hochul used to describe this percentile of students was “serial rapists,” and the legislation is designed to go after that portion of attackers.
“The defense that these people use all the time is ‘She didn’t say no,’” Hochul said. “There has to be consent now, because people can be impaired from saying yes.”
Hochul compared the situation to the response to domestic violence in the 1970’s, where nobody brought it up. “If a wife called 911 about her husband beating her, the policeman would come over and ultimately say that there’s nothing wrong,” Hochul said. “The law didn’t protect them, so we changed it. We want to get to the point where people would ostracize the assaulter like we did with domestic violence. These people won’t just be kicked out of school. They can be prosecuted and convicted of a crime.”
“There will no longer be that culture of acceptance,” Hochul said. “The more of a dialogue we have, the more instances will be reported. When the culture finally goes away, the number of assaults will go down.”
Among the questions Hochul took from the audience was one on how New York State’s laws stack up with the rest of the country. According to Hochul, New York State laws on college sexual assault are some of the strictest in the country, and rivaled only by California. “Other states have the same laws,” Hochul commented, “but New York gives power to the victim in the aftermath. We think that will be a major selling point for out of state students.”
Another question was asked about if there were any figures on the number of sexual assaults since this legislation passed. Hochul didn’t have any numbers to speak of as the legislation has been around for less than a year. Plus schools were still in the “grace period” of adapting to the new standards. She also said that the federal government is taking notice and working on addressing this issue with a possible punishment for schools who fail to report or prevent the assaults from occurring being a withholding of Title IX money.
Hochul said herself she’s an eternal optimist. She also pointed to Canisius being a model of getting the student body to know about the process. “I heard one student say that she had heard the same speech on this five times in one day in different clubs,” Dierenfield said during the closing remarks. “If every student knows these rules, I consider that progress.”