The last few years have seen widespread accusations that many colleges and universities have failed to adequately protect their students from rape and sexual assault on campus. These complaints range from schools not punishing convicted assailants to accusations that many schools allow judicial proceedings to drag out over months or years, causing survivors to give up hope or allowing assailants to graduate. Last year, many students expressed concerns about Columbia’s response to sexual assault on campus—specifically in regard to the fact that Columbia does not provide enough information to allow students to independently verify that the administration is fulfilling its obligations to student safety. In response to these concerns, the Columbia University College Democrats are petitioning the administration to release data that would make Columbia’s response to sexual assault transparent and accountable to the student body.
Columbia already publishes an official Policy on Gender Based Misconduct and releases information on the number of reported assaults on campus (as required by the Clery Act). However, this information falls far short of what is needed to ensure that the administration is fulfilling its obligation to student safety. Neither Columbia nor Barnard provide any data about what portion of alleged assailants are found guilty. Nor do they release any information on what types of punishments those found guilty of rape or sexual assault on campus receive, or what guidelines Columbia uses to apply sanctions and punishments—despite widespread evidence that rapists at other colleges across the country are given extraordinarily lenient punishments. There is no information about the typical length of time it takes for a reported case to be adjudicated. Nor does Columbia release an estimate of the true number of sexual assaults on campus, even though the number of reported assaults is almost certainly a tiny fraction of the true number. We are also concerned about the training Public Safety officers receive to support survivors and how students are selected to be members of the hearing panels—information that is either unavailable or years out of date.
In order to ensure that Columbia and Barnard are doing their jobs to protect students on campus, we need this information. While we have contacted administrators in the Office of Gender Based Misconduct and at the Rape Crisis Center, we have yet to receive the information and were sometimes only given meetings weeks after we requested them. The administration needs to know that the Columbia community demands transparency and accountability. These issues are vital to the safety and well-being of every person on campus. Department of Justice reports and independent research have repeatedly estimated that approximately 20 to 25 percent of women and 4 percent of men attending college are sexually assaulted during their time on campus. A survey from 2008 found that one in six women at Princeton said they had been assaulted. While there were approximately 6,000 students in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science last year, there were only 12 reported sexual assaults. These estimates indicate that the true number could be in the hundreds. We need to know if sexual assault is this prevalent on campus, and we need to know how the University is addressing it.
We are committed to the privacy of all students, especially survivors of sexual assault. Columbia’s administration is bound by a number of legal restrictions that prevent it from releasing any identifying information on survivors or accused assailants. We fully support these laws and, as such, our petition asks only for anonymous, aggregated data on the administration’s policies and responses. The clear rules and legal standards that already govern publication of anonymous data by colleges ensure that students’ privacy will be respected, and provide for strict penalties for any violations.
There are major concerns with the effectiveness of the administration’s response to sexual violence on campus. Dozens of other colleges have seen administrators more concerned with protecting the school’s PR than protecting students. We do not have the information and data to know whether or not this is the case at Columbia. We do not know if Columbia’s policies are being applied successfully or if they need to be changed or reformed.
Columbia’s and Barnard’s administrations need to know that the campus community demands that students have the right to know that their school is fulfilling its obligations to student safety. We need to show them that a transparent and accountable sexual assault policy is a major student priority. Sign the petition and demand that accountability.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science. He is vice president of the Columbia University Democrats. This op-ed is written on behalf of the Columbia University Democrats.
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