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UMaine System Trustees Approve Updated Sex Assault Policy

PORTLAND, Maine - University of Maine System trustees have strengthened the definition of "consent" as part of the system's new policy on sexual assault and harassment. A growing number of post-secondary educational institutions have been adopting stricter interpretations of consent to comply with new federal regulations. Jay Field dropped by UMaine's Orono campus to talk with students about the change.

"Consent," the new policy reads, "is agreement to engage in sexual contact. Consent must be informed, freely and actively given, and consist of a mutually agreeable and understandable exchange of words or actions. Consent is clear, knowing and voluntary. Consent is active, not passive. Consent may be withdrawn at any time."

"Seems pretty straightforward. You have to have consent on both sides," says Julie Churchill. Churchill, a senior from Fayette, Maine, is sitting at a table inside Memorial Union with a friend, Megan Dood. Chruchill says she has some concerns about the notion of being able to "withdraw consent," as the policy says, at any time.

"That could backfire on people - like, if an event took place and somebody decided they wanted to revoke their consent," Churchill says. "I mean, I guess you get a gray area with just about anything, though."

The Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education is now investigating more than 80 colleges nationwide over their handling of sex assault allegations. In 2011, the office sent out a letter reminding colleges and universities of their obligations under federal law, to look into such cases and to put policies in place to combat sexual violence.

"It's a good step in the right direction," Megan Dood says. "But, I mean, without changing the whole kind of culture around it, I don't know if it's really going to have a huge impact."

Dood, who's also a senior, says sexual encounters on campus that end badly are often accompanied by a certain set of assumptions: "That it's always, you know, one person's fault. Someone's always the guilty party. We just need to kind of change how we feel about taking advantage of situations like that, I guess."

Julie Churchill says tougher, more explicit policies on sexual assault are good, but may not have much impact unless universities address the thing that fuels the hook-up culture on campus.

"Start with the drinking culture, before you can make any headway with the rest of it," Churchill says. "I think it would be a big help. I think it would make more of an impact. But that's probably not going to change, so..."

UMaine System trustees adopted the new policy on sexual assault and harrassment unanimously. It takes effect immediately.