Student activists are not happy. While Columbia released a new sexual assault policy Friday that makes some significant changes to the way the University handles cases of sexual assault, activists say the policy falls short and that they were cut out of the process.
Concerns raised about the new policy include the lack of guaranteed accommodations for survivors, the sanctioning guidelines, the training for staff members, and the dean of each school’s continued role as decision-maker in the appeal process.
A statement signed by activist groups No Red Tape Columbia, the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, Columbia Alumni Allied Against Sexual Assault, Title IX Team, and Take Back the Night said that the policy “does not reflect students’ needs, and changes made are not adequate to ensure student safety.”
“Our goal is and always has been to work with the administration including President Bollinger, Jeri Henry, and Melissa Rooker, who were central to the development of this policy to address these critical concerns,” the statement said. “Instead, we have been stonewalled, misled, and deliberately excluded from the revision process. Thus far, their refusal to meaningfully engage with students and their failure to respond to our concerns has made constructive communication impossible.”
Administrators said the new policy was developed based on recommendations from the Department of Education and a report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, but that they also took into account student concerns presented throughout the spring semester.
“The policy is directly responsive to many issues students raised last spring in a variety of forms, including town halls, meetings with administrators, and otherwise,” Suzanne Goldberg, University President Lee Bollinger’s special advisor on sexual assault prevention and response, said in an interview on Friday.
Students, however, feel they were not involved in the creation of the new policy. Student activists were first told about the changes on Aug. 12, when administrators briefed a group of 10 undergraduate and graduate students on the new policy and asked for their feedback.
“I think that a lot of the oversights in this policy could have been avoided had students been able to meet with administrators to speak with them, to explain our concerns,” Sejal Singh, CC ’15 and a coordinator with the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, said.
The statement students released Friday said they were told the University would not rewrite its gender-based misconduct policy over the summer, and that student voices would be involved during the process when the time came.
“The point of that meeting was so that the students would be aware that the policy was about to come out, understand the key features of that policy, so they could communicate about the key features of the policy with their colleagues and their peers,” Goldberg said. “One of my interests in having that meeting was to solicit the students’ ideas for how to best engage with the community going forward in the academic year.”
Goldberg and Scott Schell, a vice president for public affairs, said that administrators decided to release the policy before the end of the summer in order to have the policy ready for new student orientation, and to make sure they were in compliance with the federal guidelines.
But students and alumni expressed their discontent with several aspects of the new policy and said that their concerns ultimately weren’t considered.
“They had to scramble to react and really come up with a robust response,” Aries Dela Cruz, GS ’09 and a member of Columbia Alumni Allied Against Sexual Assault, said. “While the administration says that they’re incorporating concerns from the students, what the students are seeking is really a more robust engagement and robust dialogue with administrators involved on this issue.”
Singh said in an interview on Friday that she was particularly unhappy with the policy’s sections on accommodations for students going through the process and sanctioning guidelines.
The new policy clarifies that accommodations are available to students from the minute they request help until they graduate, but states the Gender-Based Misconduct Office will “evaluate any request for accommodations in light of the circumstances and information available at the time.”
“There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be changed,” Singh, who is also Columbia College Student Council vice president for policy, said. “The policy doesn't guarantee those accommodations, which I think is a huge problem and a serious oversight.”
Singh added that the section on sanctioning is unclear because sanctioning officers will determine consequences based on similar past cases. In order to feel comfortable with this, students would need to trust that sanctioning officers will impose serious consequences—something they say they can’t do until they see data on how the University has adjudicated past sexual assaults.
“It’s not clear that the sanctioning system has been meaningfully changed,” Singh said, adding that she hopes the anonymous, aggregate data on sexual assault adjudication—which administrators have said will be released in the “near future”—provides a clearer picture of what kind of sanctions students can expect based on the type of gender-based misconduct.
The policy includes a description of how sanctions are determined and a list of possible sanctions, but does not provide specific guidelines for different types of violations.
“We have no idea how these policies are going to be implemented until we get that data,” Singh said. “And I think that’s a lot of the problem.”
Jeri Henry, the senior assistant dean of judicial affairs, said in an interview on Friday that “there’s not a one-size-fits-all model of sanctioning.”
“Sanctions really have to be calibrated to fit the misconduct. The policy itself is not going to mandate that there’s a particular sanction for a misconduct,” Henry said. “And I know you’ve heard me say before that the most serious violations will result in the most serious sanctions.”
Another concern the new policy left unchanged is deans’ responsibility for determining appeal cases.
Students emphasized the potential for conflicts of interest to arise due to deans’ other responsibilities, including fundraising and representing the colleges. In addition, deans who take over midyear may not receive full training, as training has typically been done once per year.
“The idea that someone would … not receive any training and then be determining these serious, urgent, deeply important questions that affect student lives with absolutely no training is simply ridiculous and, to me, demonstrates such a lack of regard for student safety,” Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, CC ’15 and a lead activist of No Red Tape, said at the March town hall.
On Friday, Henry echoed her comments from the town hall last spring, saying she feels confident the deans are the best people to make these decisions.
“We do really strongly believe that the deans are in the best position to be the final arbitrators of these pieces,” Henry said. “They are committed to a fair, equitable process for their students. They should all have the final say to a student that falls under their purview.”
Another concern presented in Friday’s statement from activist groups and throughout the school year was about the type and frequency of training administrators and staff members receive.
Henry said that deans either have received or will receive updated training, and that there will be ongoing training for the student affairs administrators formally designated to serve on hearing panels. The University has hired Lisa Friel, the vice president of sexual misconduct consulting and investigations at T&M Protection Resources and the former chief of Manhattan’s Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, to consult and help plan training for staff members.
Singh said she thinks the policy does introduce some positive changes—but hopes that administrators will listen more closely to student concerns in the fall.
“There are certainly some good things here, but many of those good things are mandated by federal regulations,” Singh said. “And a lot of the things that students have been fighting haven’t been sufficiently addressed.”
Goldberg said administrators want to prioritize meeting with students in the fall and are looking forward to hearing their feedback on the new policy.
“The policy on that first page invites continuing engagement from students and the entire Columbia community,” Goldberg said. “Most important right now is to make clear that student suggestions, comments are welcome now and throughout the school year.”
Dela Cruz said that while he hopes to see concrete changes, he is still skeptical that administrators will follow through on their promises.
“Given what’s happened in the past, I’m prepared to be let down,” Dela Cruz said. “But I’m very optimistic that eventually, Columbia has it in its heart to do the right thing and really sit down with students and make sure that everyone has a place at the table.”
Singh said that she plans to continue working with administrators in the fall, but she still wishes they had included students during the drafting of this new policy.
“I think that it’s really important that there are clear, open, successful ways for students to be communicating with those decision-makers,” Singh said. “We’ve been asking for these things for a very long time. If they had spoken to us as part of this process, these oversights might have been avoided.”