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University Senate Student Affairs Committee co-chairs Matt Chou, CC '14, and Akshay Shah, SEAS '14, spoke at Wednesday's University Senate town hall on sexual assault policy.

Updated, 4/16, 10:26 p.m.

Students and faculty again voiced their concerns about Columbia's sexual assault policy at the University Senate Town Hall on Gender-Based Misconduct and Sexual Assault Wednesday afternoon.

Though most of the town hall was devoted to student questions, Interim Dean of Student Affairs Terry Martinez said that undergraduate deans recently met and decided to increase the amount of time each school's New Student Orientation Program spends on consent education—an issue that a number of students brought up at the town hall held in March

In addition to Martinez, Wednesday's panelists were University Senate Executive Committee Chair Sharyn O'Halloran, Deputy Title IX Coordinator Michael Dunn, Director of Sexual Violence Response La'Shawn Rivera, Columbia University Medical Center Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs Lisa Mellman, Columbia College University Senator Marc Heinrich, CC '16, and Teachers College Senator Barry Goldenberg, a third-year doctoral student.

The panel discussion portion of the hour-and-a-half-long meeting focused on education, outreach, and the dissemination of information surrounding these policies. Panelists said that policies should take into consideration the various factors that can contribute to sexual assault, like the use of alcohol.

"There's huge misinformation about the role of alcohol in consent," Heinrich said. “There's just a lack of information available. People just aren't aware of the resources available to them.” 

“We need to be constantly responding to these issues," he added.

During the discussion, administrators continued to emphasize the need for honest dialogue and open-mindedness on both sides of the table.

“Some of you may feel that we're not moving quickly enough, but it's neither truthful nor helpful to question the sincerity of anyone in this room," Martinez said.

After the discussion, the panel opened the floor for students to ask questions. Students raised issues similar to those discussed at the March 13 town hall, though over half of Wednesday's questions came from graduate students. 

Although administrators said at the end of March that they will consider moving the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center to a more accessible location for non-Barnard students, audience members still raised concerns about the lack of 24-hour staffing.

“We need people who are professionally trained, who dedicate their careers to helping support students during some of the most vulnerable moments we may experience in our entire lives,” Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, CC '15 and a member of the activist group Columbia No Red Tape, said.

“Columbia is an institution with amazing resources, and I cannot imagine what could be more important in terms of dedicating those resources than this,” she said.

In response, Dunn and Rivera cited the use of student volunteers as an established technique, saying most survivors prefer talking to their peers after traumatic events.

"When you look at rape-crisis centers worldwide, it [professional staffing] is not considered best practice," Rivera said.

Students from the Columbia University Medical Center schools and the School of Social Work raised concerns about the conversations surrounding sexual assault on their campuses.

“At the CUMC, we do not feel this issue is being taken seriously,” one CUMC student, who declined to give her name, said. “I have spoken with the administration about the issue, and the response I got was that this is not something they feel needs to be taken seriously because it's something we should have covered in our undergraduate experience.”

Students also brought up the need for consent training at the medical school.

"That's certainly under discussion,” Mellman responded. “It's clear that this is something that's underdeveloped at the medical center."

Both audience members and panelists seemed to agree that major efforts are needed to change campus culture.

“I'm glad the town halls are continuing,” said Alex Hastings, BC '16. “I hope this becomes something that happens all the time.”

"The real question is how to change the overall environment, how to make it comfortable for people to come forward and report these types of incidents,” O'Halloran said.

“It has to be a part of everybody's responsibility,” said Martinez. “It's about reaching the students who aren't in this room.”

Despite the open format of the meeting, some students felt as though their voices weren't being acknowledged.

Michaela Weihl, BC '17, was troubled by the administrative emphasis on the concept of best practices.

“If they're getting feedback that says their best practices aren't working, then that's something that needs to be looked at,” she said.

“Best practices aren't moving anywhere,” Sejal Singh, CC '15 and Columbia College Student Council vice president of policy-elect, said. Singh is also the president of the Columbia University College Democrats, which circulated a petition last November to increase transparency of the University's adjudication policies.

“If we're going to be taking steps forward, we can't be doing ‘as best' as other institutions are doing," Singh said. "We have to do better.”

 “It seems like they're saying, ‘We want feedback, but not that feedback,'” added Ridolfi-Starr.  |  @ebbogz

university senate Town Hall sexual assault adjudication Terry Martinez Title IX
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