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Rep. Roberta Willis (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

State colleges and universities will be mandated to provide annual student and employee training on sexual assault prevention as part of legislation approved Thursday by the Higher Education Committee.

The bill has been a top priority this year for the panel, which began holding hearings on the subject last year in response to a Title IX complaint against the University of Connecticut. In the complaint, current and former students claimed the school violated their rights by showing indifference when they reported being raped or sexually harassed.

During a Wednesday meeting, lawmakers on the committee called the bill, which they drafted after several hearings, one of the most important pieces of legislation being considered this session.

“Clearly, I think Connecticut, with the passage of this legislation, will be a national leader on the issue of sexual assaults,” Rep. Roberta Willis, co-chairwoman of the committee, said.

The bill includes a number of new reporting requirements for Connecticut’s public and private higher education institutions and requires them to provide victims with clear, written information on their rights and options when they report an assault. The legislation also requires schools to maintain trained Sexual Assault Response Teams.

Before passing the bill, the Higher Education Committee changed provisions in the language related to the sexual assault prevention training it asks schools to provide. They made that training mandatory and required it once a year. School employees will now be required to participate. The bill had previously used permissive language regarding the training so that schools could offer it to students within the schools’ available budgetary resources.

Willis said the current bill was the result of several re-writes. She said she considers the training and prevention aspects of the legislation to be its strongest provisions, particularly language which requires training aimed at encouraging students to intervene in situations to prevent a sexual assault from occurring.

“We’re not just handing somebody a pamphlet during freshmen orientation, but an ongoing programing where students are — really their eyes are opened. The bystander intervention piece, really is about students stepping up to the plate to be their for other students,” she said.

The other half of the bill is designed to ensure that colleges and universities respond with best practices when victims report being assaulted. Willis said the new policies may result in more reported sexual assaults.

“The irony may be that, after we pass this, more people feel comfortable reporting. So we should be not looking at the reporting numbers because that can be so misleading. I think in some ways it may say we’re doing a better job,” she said.

By passing the bill, the committee sends the legislation to the floor of the House. But it likely will need to be approved by other committees, like Judiciary, before passage. The bill is widely expected to pass this year. Every female lawmaker expressed support for the legislation early in the session.

Sen. Steve Cassano, co-chairman of the Higher Education Committee, said he believes that every state lawmaker supports it because they all know someone who could be impacted by the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.

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Rep. Timothy LeGeyt (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“For too long, I think, things have slid and we’ve just kind of looked the other way and I think this bill is saying we’re not going to do that any longer,” he said.

Rep. Timothy LeGeyt, one of the committee’s ranking Republicans, said it was one of the most important bills he had worked on with the committee.

“When we see the number of people who came to testify and shared experiences that they had that radically altered their college experience . . . the urgency is evident that we need to do whatever we can to limit this kind of tragedy,” he said.