Legislature requires universities to get “SANE” in face of campus sexual assault

“I lay there at 20 years old thinking, ‘OK, this is how I’m going to die,'” said Kimberly Weeks, testifying last week before the Senate Education Committee.

Weeks was a junior at the University of Northern Colorado in 2006 when a man broke into her apartment near campus and sexually assaulted her.

She went to the emergency room after the assault where she was paired with a nurse trained as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE).

“The great thing she did for me that day, what really helped in my recovery and healing, was to tell me exactly what she was going to do,” said Weeks of the nurse’s careful 13-step evidence examination.

“Most importantly, she would ask my permission,” said Weeks. “For somebody who just had their entire life violated in a huge way, for someone to ask permission was a huge, huge deal… It made me feel in control.”

The forensic evidence gathered by her nurse was “the nail in the coffin” for her perpetrator, who was convicted of assault, Weeks said.

Her story helped push lawmakers’ to support a bipartisan bill requiring all Colorado colleges and universities to connect student sexual-assault survivors with proper aftercare, ideally provided by nurses certified as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners.

The so-called “SANE” legislation passed the Senate with only Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, and Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, voting against it.

Neville also voted against it in committee, saying he was concerned that the bill was an overreach because it applied not just to public but also private institutions. 

“I wasn’t expecting any opposition to this bill at all,” said Weeks. “This is an issue of public safety. That’s exactly why our government exists.”

Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, R-Thornton, one of HB 1220’s two Republican sponsors in the Senate, agreed that it’s time for the state government to engage the issue of campus sexual assault. She said the bill will create certainty and consistency for student victims across the state and serve as a crucial bridge between higher-education sexual-assault response and the medical and judicial systems.

Karen Moldovan, Director of Advocacy & Policy at the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, likewise stressed the importance of a collaborative, health-focused response to student sexual assault.

“We know that sex assault is the most under-reported crime in our country,” said Moldovan. “Victims often don’t come forward, and they often don’t get medical care. There can be long-term health impacts of not getting care.”

According to a 1999 study of 102 female survivors of sexual assault, survivors who experience a supportive and compassionate response, regardless of the criminal-justice outcome, have lower rates of post-traumatic stress.

Proper medical care following an assault is also crucial to criminal prosecution, if the survivor chooses to go that route.

“If you want to prosecute a sex crime and you’re a campus victim, you really need forensic evidence,” said attorney Brett Sokolow, who councils some 75 universities nationwide on sexual-assault-response policies.

Soklow added that Colorado appears to be the first state in the nation considering this kind of policy. As state legislatures move to tackle the issue of sexual assault, this SANE bill is only the beginning of what they can do.

States could fund full-time victim-advocate positions at public universities and require schools to develop the same kinds of established relationships with law enforcement that the “SANE” bill would require with medical professionals, Sokolow said.

photo by Wolfram Burner