INDIANAPOLIS — Colleges looking for ways to reduce sexual assault on campus may turn to lawmakers for help defining the word “consent.”

Rape allegations are difficult to investigate when there is misunderstanding about when “yes” means “yes,” representatives of several universities told members of the state Higher Education Commission on Wednesday.

“Many students are confused about what consent means, and how it’s obtained, especially when alcohol is involved,” said Rachel Green, an Indiana University-Bloomington senior who help leads a student initiative to reduce assaults on campus called Culture of Care. She was on a panel invited by the commission to discuss what the state can do to reduce sexual violence.

Prompting the commission’s interest are increasing numbers of sexual assaults reported on the state’s campuses. That includes IU-Bloomington, which has been under review by the U.S. Department of Education for possible violations of federal law in how it handles sexual violence.

At Wednesday’s meeting, state Rep. Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis, said a first step is recognizing the seriousness of sexual assault and how much it’s underreported, especially among students.

A study last year by the Centers for Disease Control ranked Indiana second in the nation for sexual assaults against young women. It said about 50 percent of assaults are unreported.

“We have a terrible problem,” said Hale, quoting the CDC numbers. “Yes, wholesome little Indiana is second worst in the nation.”

Earlier this year, Hale succeeded in getting the General Assembly to fund a study of sexual assault of minors. In the next legislative session, which begins in January, she plans to push for language that better defines consent when it comes to sex.

“Indiana lacks a definition of ‘consent’ “ she told the commission.

Butler University general counsel Claire Aigotti said “clarity around consent is essential” for colleges dealing with incidents involving students whose judgments are impaired by alcohol, when the accused and accuser offer different accounts of what happened.

“These are very difficult issues to navigate,” Aigotti said.

In September, California became the first state to enact a “yes means yes” standard. Its law requires colleges and universities that receive state funds to adopt sexual assault policies that include affirmative consent as the key element in determining whether the activity was consensual. Other states — including New Hampshire and New Jersey — are considering similar measures.

Hale said she didn’t know if Indiana is ready to take that step. She said results of the state’s sexual assault study, due early next year, will guide discussions.

“It’s a problem that couldn’t be more urgent or important,” she said. “I have colleagues on both sides of the aisle ready to look at all kinds of initiatives that might make a dent in it.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the state for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden

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