Amid concerns over the University’s judicial process for sexual assault cases, the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault discussed the policy with students last week—but any changes will have to wait until next semester.
Earlier this semester, Columbia University Democrats circulated a petition that called for Columbia to release more data about how the University adjudicates sexual assaults. Then just last week, the New York Post published a story that included interviews with three students who claimed the University mishandled their sexual assault cases.
After PACSA reviewed the Dems’ petition last month, it assembled a subcommittee to discuss concerns with students.
University Senator Marc Heinrich, CC ’16, and Dems President Sejal Singh, CC ’15, who were both present at the subcommittee’s meeting last Thursday, agreed that the meeting—which was the result of “months of work,” according to Heinrich—was productive.
“Student representatives are working closely with administrators, and we hope to see meaningful policy changes as early as next semester,” Heinrich said.
“I thought it was a great conversation and the student reps were able to share their concerns. We spent most of the time being sure we understood all aspects of the concerns presented,” Interim Dean of Student Affairs Terry Martinez, who sits on PACSA, said in an email.
Martinez said that the subcommittee will bring the concerns back to the full PACSA for continued discussions.
“I think we have a good set of policies and procedures in place, but we can always look to see if we can do a better job,” Martinez said. “This includes education for both women and men about sexual assault and consent, as well as what to expect from the process for both sides—from the complainant and respondent.”
Singh said that the meeting had been constructive, but that she felt disappointed that it took so long to gain an audience with PACSA.
“We find it really disturbing students thought that they were treated so unfairly that they had to go all the way to the Post to get their voices heard,” she said.
‘All the odds are against us’
The New York Post article reported that three Columbia students were assaulted by an athlete multiple times between fall 2011 and April 2013. The women said that they were unhappy with how the University handled their cases.
A Student Affairs spokesperson declined to comment on the specific cases, citing federal privacy concerns.
Two of the women quoted in the Post article told Spectator that they felt no support from the University during the process—one of the women’s cases didn’t make it to hearing, and the other student lost her case after an eight-month-long process.
The Office of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct’s website states that its official policy is that the adjudication process should take, at most, 60 days.
“I felt like instead of Columbia giving me the greatest opportunity to present my case, the focus was just on getting me through the process as quickly as possible,” the first woman, who was granted anonymity out of concern of retaliation, said.
She added that she felt confused throughout the process and was unaware of what resources were available to her.
“They told me I didn’t have enough evidence, but it was never clear to me who decided that,” she said.
“I had to very quickly adjust between believing, naively, that the office wanted to help, and then realizing that I really just had to advocate for myself,” the first woman said. “It’s no wonder people don’t report. If I were truly looking for justice, I would not go to that office again.”
The second woman, who was also granted anonymity out of concern of retaliation, agreed that she felt a lack of support from the University during the process.
“The school basically told us, ‘No, you’re wrong, and we’re going to put you through an eight-month ordeal and then tell you again that you’re wrong,’” the second woman said.
“I know a lot of women who’ve been raped on this campus. I’d say that a lot of people just don’t bother going through any process at all because they think the school is going to tell them to shut up,” she added.
She said that she would only advise other women to go forward with their cases if they were willing to put up a fight.
“All the odds are against us,” she said.
Both of the women believe that the petition submitted to PACSA last week was a good starting point and said that they hope basic data about the adjudication of sexual assault could lead to changes in campus culture.
“If people could see the ratio of the number of cases reported to the number of cases that have any real consequence, that would really make a difference,” the first woman said.
The University currently only releases data on the number of sexual assaults reported on campus, which is consistent with the Clery Act. In 2012—the year with the most recent data available—Columbia reported 12 sexual assaults on campus.
PACSA can ultimately make recommendations about what data should be released.
Since the Dems’ petition surfaced in October, administrators have said that their primary concern is protecting the confidentiality of students involved.
“We’re concerned that disclosing statistics may cause those students going through the process to feel as if their cases have been identified and broadcast publicly to the community,” a spokesperson for the Office of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct said in an email last month.
Still, the spokesperson said that the office thought it was important to have “candid discussions about these matters and continually review processes in order to address concerns about safety, fairness, transparency, and privacy.”
“My view is that any sexual assault on campus is one too many,” President Lee Bollinger said in an interview with Spectator last month. “The staff—the people who manage this area—are very concerned that more data could inadvertently and unfairly be used to identify people, which is one of the really important elements involved in this.”
“But, maybe there are things that could be disclosed that would not jeopardize the fundamental issue of privacy. And I’m willing to consider those things in the context of the advisory committee that we have,” Bollinger said.
Tracey Wang and Samantha Cooney contributed reporting.
Corrections: A previous version of this article contained the word “implicit” in Terry Martinez’s quote, which was a typing error on the part of her spokesperson. An earlier version of this article misquoted Singh. Spectator regrets the errors.