By now every college student is back for the fall semester. Chances are that many of them don’t know sexual violence on campus is a major issue.

(Credit: Artem Furman, ThinkStock)

The New Jersey Legislature is trying to address it by moving to create a state task force to study the problem and make suggestions about how to prevent sexual violence on campus.

“Studies have found that about one-in-five women experience sexual violence while attending college and about five percent of men do as well. Our own survey at Rutgers-New Brunswick confirmed those numbers last year,” said Sarah McMahon, associate director of the Rutgers Center on Violence Against Women and Children. “Although the problem of campus sexual assault is not new, what has changed is the urgency with which it is now being addressed.”

The study to which McMahon referred during recent testimony before the Senate Higher Education Committee was a 2014 report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The American Civil Liberties Union estimated that 95 percent of U.S. campus rapes go unreported.

Awareness of the issue is an important step according to Angela Chong, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at The College of New Jersey.

“We know that there’s a bit of a disconnect and a bit of a ‘this won’t happen to me, this won’t happen here’ (attitude),” Chong said. “It has colored our training efforts to not just give students the information that we believe that they need, but also the empowerment to be able to have those very difficult conversations and the empowerment to intervene when and if they see a peer maybe getting in a precarious situation.”

A bill (S-2812) co-sponsored by State Sen. Peter Barnes (D-Edison) would create a Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault. It would have 12 members appointed by the Governor and members of the Legislature. The panel would study and evaluate current policies and practices regarding campus sexual assault and identify problems and areas for improvement. The task force would then have one year to make recommendations regarding prevention, response, and awareness.

“We are seeing a dangerous trend that is affecting many young people studying at colleges and universities,” said Barnes in a press release. “Sexual assault on college campuses is a serious problem that must be addressed at the state and local level.”

The legislation was approved by the Senate Higher Education panel, but has not been scheduled for a vote in the full Upper House. The assembly version (A-4156) was approved by that full body in June. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) was one of the prime sponsors.

“College sexual assault has become far too common. Rape should never be the norm. The only way to prevent sexual assault is to change the culture on campus and to do that we need support from the entire higher education community," Huttle said in an emailed statement.

Kristine Brown, director of media relations at Rider University also addressed a recent incident on the campus involving alleged sexual assault, saying the school is cooperating with investigators.

"Rider University takes allegations of sexual assault very seriously and we are cooperating closely with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and the Lawrence Township Police Department as they conduct their investigation of this incident," Brown said. "Rider is committed to sustaining an environment dedicated to learning and mutual respect, and has anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in place which prohibit all forms of sexual assault, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking."