In light of the “Me Too” movement and heightened national concern about gender discrimination, the Massachusetts State legislature is considering legislation to tackle the issue of sexual harassment, both in the state and within the legislature itself. Bill S.2203, introduced on Nov 2, 2017, enforces and expands upon the sexual assault reporting and response requirements created during the Obama administration. Bill H.4159, introduced on Jan 31, 2018, aims to create a task force of experts to develop a survey to gauge attitudes towards sexual assault on the campuses of institutes of higher education in Massachusetts. This task force will subsequently make recommendations for new bills to combat sexual assault that occur at colleges and universities throughout the state. Both bills are currently being considered and modified by the House and have no scheduled vote date as of yet. However, proponents of both bills have been active in generating support through rallies in recent weeks.
The latter bill, Bill H.4159, was the brainchild of the Every Voice Coalition, which is a collection of students and university organizations, including Wellesley’s Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone (SAAFE), a group dedicated to implementing legislation which mandates the creation of a survey as a first step in sexual assault prevention on campuses across Massachusetts. Working with Senator William Brownsberger of the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District of Massachusetts, students in the coalition aim to help make Massachusetts the first state in the country to implement a sexual assault climate survey for all campuses in the state. Most recently, the Every Voice Coalition led a rally at the State House on Wednesday, April 10 in support of both bills S.2203 and H.4159. Sabine Adamson ’19, a student organizer with the Every Voice Coalition, recalled, “We were told beforehand that if we could get 70 to 100 students there, that we could dominate headlines for that day, and it would really make a difference, and we got 200 students.”
While these proposed bills promise to tackle the problem of sexual assault in institutions of higher education throughout Massachusetts, the legislature has its own issues to resolve regarding sexual harassment. After The Boston Globe published a story in October 2017 highlighting several cases of sexual harassment perpetrated by powerful men within the Massachusetts State House, the House counsel investigated the House’s current practices regarding sexual harassment and made recommendations for new rules. Under the adopted guidelines, an equal employment opportunity officer will be instituted to mediate conflicts and recommend discipline. In addition, the Massachusetts Legislature Office of Human Resources will be restructured and required to have a say in the hiring process. While there have been concerns raised about how the equal employment opportunity officer will be used by the representatives, there are still additional proposals being considered in the legislature about new guidelines on sexual harassment.
In response to the adoption of the new guidelines on sexual harassment in the House, State Representative Diana DiZoglio ’10 of Methuen, Massachusetts recently made an impassioned speech in front of the House that detailed a personal narrative about the culture of silencing that victims of sexual harassment have to face. As a legislative aide in the House in 2011, DiZoglio and a state representative were caught alone in the House chamber. Although nothing inappropriate had occurred, DiZoglio was subsequently subject to rumors and jokes and was eventually fired. However, before she could receive six weeks of severance pay, she was told to sign a non-disclosure agreement stating that she could never talk about the reasons for her termination.
In light of her situation as a legislative aide, Representative DiZoglio proposed an amendment to the new rules adopted last month by the Massachusetts State legislature, which would prevent the use of non-disclosure agreements in instances where workplace complaints have been filed. “I don’t believe that non disclosure agreements should be used in cases of harassment or discrimination,” DiZoglio said. “I believe they silence the victim and protect the perpetrator.” While the amendment failed to pass in the House, DiZoglio is not alone in cautioning against non-disclosure agreements. Wellesley College Title IX coordinator Jacqueline Anchondo said, “I would encourage anybody who is presented with an agreement to consult with an attorney … get their own attorney to consult them on next steps.”
Both Adamson, as part of the Every Voice Coalition, and Representative DiZoglio made it clear that the problems of sexual harassment and assault are not confined to Massachusetts. Citing the recent revelations about prominent cases of workplace sexual harassment, such as Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar and Bill O’Reilly, DiZoglio commented, “I don’t think that harassment and discrimination are only issues happening at the State house.”
Regarding the two bills that are being pushed to combat sexual assault on college campuses throughout Massachusetts, DiZoglio added, “We need to stay vigilant across the board and recognize that this is a cultural change, it needs to take place in both the private sector and the public sector.”
Adamson further stressed the need to pass bills S.2203 and H.4159. “On a personal level, as a woman at college, most people have friends or have been sexually assaulted or experience sexual harassment,” she said. “It’s such a pervasive issue that it’s hard not to have affinity towards it or recognize its not going on at this point.”