More than 400 students have signed an online petition calling for the University to release information about the number, nature, and judicial resolution of cases of sexual assault, rape, and gender-based misconduct on campus.
Columbia University Democrats President Sejal Singh, CC ’15, said the Dems started the petition to raise awareness about the lack of transparency in campus assault statistics and procedures.
The group looked into Columbia’s policies on sexual assault last semester, after students approached the Dems with concerns about the University’s policies and the dearth of information about what sorts of sanctions are typically applied to offenders. Singh said that once she and other Dems members began digging into the issue and talking to students, they found that the concerns were fairly widespread.
“There have been a lot of concerns at other schools about things like convicted rapists or assailants getting essentially no punishments, concerns about it sometimes taking months or sometimes more than a year for these processes to actually get resolved,” Dems Vice President Austin Heyroth, CC ’15, said. “The statistics we’re looking at is to see whether those concerns are also an issue at Columbia.”
The petition asks for information in a variety of categories. In addition to requesting the number and nature of sexual assaults, rapes, and incidents of gender-based harassment reported to the Columbia and Barnard administrations, the petition also asks for the estimated actual number of incidents; the number of cases that are addressed with judicial proceedings; the number that end in informal resolution; the number and nature of interim measures taken; the number of cases in which the accused is found guilty by University hearing panels and the sanctions recommended in those cases; and the average number of days it takes to resolve each case.
Members of the Dems said they feel that an estimated number of actual incidents is a particularly important piece of information. The Department of Justice estimates that 20 to 25 percent of women will experience a rape or attempted rape during her college years, but fewer than half of these women will report the incident.
The petition also calls for some information that is more qualitative, asking administrators to explain the selection process for student representatives on University hearing panels, the nature of the sanctions as they are actually applied by the deans of the undergraduate schools, and the content and frequency of training that Public Safety officers have received around addressing reports of sexual assault for the past five years.
Singh emphasized that even in petitioning for transparency around this qualitative information, the Dems want to ensure that the privacy of survivors is protected.
“One thing we want to make absolutely clear is that we’re not asking for any information that could identify any specific individual,” Singh said. “We’re asking for statistics only, and we think they’re really key to making sure students know how safe they are on campus.”
In addition to the signatures, several other student groups and campus leaders have issued official endorsements for the petition, including the Columbia Political Union, the Columbia University College Republicans, the Roosevelt Institute, Take Back the Night, the Muslim Students Association, and the Columbia Queer Alliance.
In addition, University Senator Jared Odessky, CC ’15, and all nine candidates for the open Columbia College senate seat, have voiced their support.
“It’s definitely important to recognize and have as part of that conversation that sexual assault happens in all communities, it happens to people of all genders,” Caitlin Lowell, CC ’15 and president of Columbia Queer Alliance, said. “We look out for the interests of LGBTQ plus students, the portion of it that asks for the frequency and content of the training for Public Safety officers. We’re definitely interested in seeing whether there’s any training in terms of LGBTQ plus competency when dealing with sexual assault of queer students.”
In addition to working with more established student groups, the Dems are collaborating with the Title IX Team, a new student initiative aiming to raise awareness about the rights of students under Title IX and to support survivors of sexual assault who feel that the administration has not adequately addressed their concerns.
“This is a cultural moment where we have these numbers—these students en masse—going up to these giant institutions and really criticizing them in a place that is very personal for a lot of people,” Smita Sen, CC ’16 and cofounder of the Title IX Team, said. “It’s important, and it’s got a lot of teeth, and it’s powerful.”
Singh said that she and other Dems members have met with representatives from the Office of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, and that they have meetings scheduled with Health Services and the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center this week.
“They’ve been fairly willing to help us out. They haven’t said no to providing the sort of statistics that we’re looking for, but they haven’t made it a priority,” Singh said. “Sometimes it takes us weeks to get meetings with them or they don’t respond to our emails. … They’re not opposed, but it’s not a big deal to them, and it’s important to us that that happens as soon as possible, so we want to make it clear that there’s a very strong campus support for this.”
The Office of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct and the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center said in a joint statement that they have received the petition, but that it would be premature to comment.
Singh said these offices have been open to helping the Dems create some kind of report to distribute to students with the information they are requesting. However, she said administrators have not responded to emails in which she asked them to create a timeline for the project.
“We are optimistically hoping that it happens this semester,” Singh said. “Looking forward, we’d also like this to be institutionalized, that this is something the University would release.”
The Dems’ petition comes as part of the group’s larger effort to examine how the University handles sexual assault and support for survivors of assault on campus.
Other issues that the group has researched so far include student access to the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center and attendance at the “Keeping Sex Sexy” workshops during the New Student Orientation Program.
“When Columbia students go to the Rape Crisis Center, which is on Barnard’s campus, they have to tell a pretty much always male security guard that they’re going to the rape crisis center,” Singh said.
Sarah Weinstein, CC ’16 and Dems membership director, said that multiple students have told her this process made them uncomfortable.
“I was a facilitator for ‘Keeping Sex Sexy’ and that was just one of the pieces of information they gave us, and when I asked about it I was like, ‘Is that ever a problem?’ and they kind of just shrugged it off,” Weinstein said, referring to staff members from the RC/AVSC. “They didn’t think of it as already making the process that’s already really difficult even worse.”
Weinstein also said she would like to focus on reworking the “Keeping Sex Sexy” workshop. She said that nearly half of the first-years who were supposed to attend skipped it this year.
“Something that we have been concerned about is one, the fact that it’s not mandatory, and two, we’re concerned that it’s not necessarily organized in a way that would make it effective even if it were mandatory,” Weinstein said. “I think it’s interesting how certain other programs during NSOP are mandatory, and it’s not as though our campus doesn’t value preventing sexual assault more than we value diversity or drinking safely.”
Singh emphasized that the Dems don’t think administrators don’t care about these issues, but rather that they might not know that students want more information or feel strongly about certain issues.
“We see ourselves as student advocates bringing concerns to the administration,” Singh said. “If there are concerns that administrators aren’t realizing that students have, and things that are happening that are making students uncomfortable that the administration just doesn’t realize, part of our goal is to bring that to their attention.”