Lawmakers look to build out response to sexual violence on K-12, college campuses
After legislators attempted to tackle issues of sexual violence and misconduct at the state’s colleges and universities in 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and advocates are again looking to expand the scope of those policies — in part by putting more power in the hands of legislative appointees.
AB245 would overhaul the governing framework for sexual harassment in higher education, eliminating a task force on higher education sexual misconduct created by the 2021 bill and replacing it with a Commission on Higher Education Campus Safety.
It would also clear up requirements for students and employees at colleges and universities to attend “programming on the awareness and prevention of sexual misconduct,” and allow institutions to make that programming a condition necessary to complete a degree.
Under a proposed amendment from Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), the bill would also replace mentions of “sexual misconduct” with “power-based violence,” and seek, again, to compel higher education officials to conduct a wide-ranging campus climate survey that would form a basis for data on sexual misconduct on Nevada campuses.
Separately, it would also expand reporting requirements to the state’s K-12 schools, mandating school districts enter into a memorandum of understanding with community organizations specializing in helping victims of sexual misconduct — a function that advocates said would be critical for younger students who often go without victim supports from the school system.
“I remember sitting in the counselor's office, my counselor apologizing for her lack of professionalism,” Lindsey Wolterbeek, a Reno High School senior, told the committee about reporting a sexual assault in her junior year. “And she simply told me that this was something that they hadn't dealt with before. I remember sitting in an office alone, anxiety pacing through my body, while I waited for the sheriff's department to take my statement, whilst the counselor simply just stood outside.”
The bill saw no opposition testimony, and maintains a wide roster of 18 co-sponsors, including four Republicans.
The new commission envisioned by the bill would also expand at least some legislative control over the process — eight of 13 members would be appointed by legislative leaders, as opposed to the task force, which was composed entirely of NSHE employees.
But the bill may yet run into a familiar legislative buzzsaw — inclusion of the Board of Regents in the state constitution.
In a legal analysis, Legislative Counsel Bureau Attorney Asher Killian told the committee that proposed amendment language requiring action from the regents on certain issues, including mandating the creation of a climate survey for NSHE institutions, would likely run afoul of existing case law leaving “management and control” of the state university to regents, not the Legislature.
Though Torres signaled that she would look to amend the bill again to request regents make the change, rather than require it, she still bristled at the reality that lawmakers’ “hands are tied because of the current status of NSHE.”
Debate over AB245, in addition to several other higher education bills circulating this session, may yet emerge as key to the future debate over 2021’s SJR7, a legislative do-over attempt to remove regents from the constitution through a ballot question.
Editor’s Note: This story appears in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2023 legislative session. Sign up for the newsletter here.