Opinion | Staff Editorials

Conversation on sexual assault policy needs action

  • less talk, more walk | Title IX Coordinator Melissa Rooker (left) was one of the administrators answering questions at March 13's sexual assault town hall.

On the Thursday before spring break, administrators held a town hall so that students could give feedback and hear updates on the University’s sexual assault and gender-based misconduct policy. This was in response to months of student demands for public discussion of issues with the sexual assault reporting process at Columbia. The town hall included deans of all four undergraduate schools, who were joined by Title IX and Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct administrators, among others.

We are encouraged to see that Columbia has decided to respond to student demands for changes in sexual assault policy by holding a town hall. However, the execution and structure of the event itself—specifically, its timing and location—were significantly flawed in ways that weakened its impact.

It is noteworthy that the deans of all four undergraduate schools were in attendance—they are the ones who make the final decisions during the appeals process in cases of sexual assault and gender-based misconduct. Because of their pivotal role in both shaping and executing sexual assault policy, we were dismayed to see them largely silent during this town hall. After introducing themselves, the deans said nothing and did not answer any questions.

[Related: Administrators respond to student concerns about sexual assault policy]

The event was also inconveniently scheduled, on the Thursday before spring break, when many students had already left or were preparing to leave campus. Because 103 Jerome Greene Hall can seat only 122, many students interested in attending were turned away at the door.

Administrators seem interested in hearing what students have to say on such an important issue. But a town hall held at an unfit time, in an unsuitable place, sends the message that administrators fail to perceive just how important this issue is to the student body.

Several of the answers given by Title IX and Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct administrators during the meeting seemed to echo this gap in understanding. When students criticized the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center for not being open 24/7, Associate Vice President and Medical Director of Health Services Samuel Seward replied that administrators would look into the issue if they felt it was something the bulk of students on campus wanted. In response, students in the room loudly vocalized that yes, this was something they wanted. But at this point, especially following the release of the proposals written by the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, what students want has been eminently clear for some time.

[Related: A survivor's account of common misconceptions surrounding sexual assault]

After students have clearly presented the issues that most concern them—including how the Rape Crisis Center is staffed—administrators cannot claim to be waiting on student approval. Just as Counseling and Psychological Services would not wait for student approval to hire a new staff member, administrators can and should make changes they see as important and positive without waiting to be prompted by student protest and negative media coverage. Indeed, the few visible changes we’ve seen—the University having two Title IX investigators take notes during meetings and deciding to keep the RC/AVSC open during New Student Orientation Program—have been carried out, albeit after student prompt, without a referendum or student body poll. Being proactive and ahead of the curve about sexual assault policy can only help students and administrators.

Town halls are a valuable resource through which students and administrators can discuss important issues, but we’re at the point where it’s time to stop simply listening and start acting. This is an important conversation, but delaying action further just perpetuates the faulty system we must reform.

Moreover, not only is this conversation unproductive in its current form, but it’s also distressing. Sexual assault is an incredibly painful and potentially traumatizing topic for many on this campus. The ongoing nature of the discussion has filled the past few months with constant reminders for survivors. This is unacceptable: Without a clear path for action to change clearly flawed policies, the nature of the topic makes it all the more important that we move quickly and focus on creating positive outcomes, instead of circular rhetoric and weak promises. Even a published transcript of the town hall—which Interim Dean of Student Affairs Terry Martinez promised to release in a timely manner—hasn’t been made available at the time of this editorial, almost two weeks later.

We understand that policy changes don’t happen overnight, but a demand for concrete, visible progress is far from unreasonable here. First of all, Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct should specify which actions, if any, Columbia plans to take in the immediate future regarding the current policy and reporting process. This is something that should have been made clear before we spent two hours voicing concerns about reforms that have previously been called for. 

Moving forward, we expect the administration to hold itself accountable for making this painful conversation productive by taking real action. Whatever the first step is—whether it means sending out monthly updates on the progress they’re making, reforming Consent 101, making the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center more easily accessible to non-Barnard students, or modifying and clarifying dean involvement in the judicial appeals process—it’s time for progress to be made. 

Talk isn’t meaningful without the promise of future action, and the hard work that the Columbia University Democrats, Title IX Team, and Coalition Against Sexual Violence have put in for the entire Columbia community should be met promptly by administrators now, and proactively addressed in the future. 

The students on this campus deserve it.

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To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

The Deans, Administrators, and Bolly will continue to sit around with their thumbs up their butts. This is criminally negligent. But then again, I TOLD YOU SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! If you are raped, call NYPD and get an attorney. Sue the rapist, and sue Columbia, the deans, the administrators, and Bolly too. Don't talk to these stinking bureaucrats outside of the lawsuit.

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Please stop. posted on

But seriously, please stop telling people to go to the police. Stop. It completely invalidates the sad fact that the police aren't always very sensitive with rape survivors — nope, Law & Order: SVU isn't the true reflection. This also ignores the fact that guess what? Going through with a trial means retraumatizing myself in front of a jury of "my peers" (really actually complete strangers), giving explicit details about my sexual assault, and then expecting to be cross-examined and beaten down by a defense attorney, and face the risk of having a PTSD flashback in court.

And then the possibility that nothing will happen to my perpetrator at all, because that's how it goes with a lot of sexual assault cases that go to court. And then having spent all that money on the attorney for nothing.

You think Columbia has bureaucrats, but you have wayyyy too much trust in the justice system and the police.

So please, just stop telling rape survivors what to do.

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Anonymous posted on

Let me spell it out to you again. Rape survivors should get an attorney and together go to NYPD. Whatever risks they may have to fear in court, that is for them, their attorneys, and their counselors to decide together, in their best interests. Columbia University aids and abets rapists, and should be known to do so. But in any case, thank you very much for the enlightenment, Mr. Internal Counsel for Columbia University.

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Anonymous posted on

I'm no Internal Counsel for Columbia, I'm a survivor of sexual assault. But thank you for very much for invalidating my brief personal account with the court system and assuming that a rape survivor wouldn't say that.

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Anonymous posted on

It would be helpful if part of this conversation focused on prevention of sexual violence. Having good policy and procedure is critical, but so too is the need to challenge our community members to be active, engaged change agents. We need to hold each other accountable for the actions and decisions that allow these forms of violence to persist. If we spend more time focused on preventing violence we should, with time, have less need for the better policies and procedures that can result from this current action. I do not suggest we choose one or the other, I propose we give equal energy to both prevention and response.

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djs posted on

"albeit after student prompt, without a referendum or student body poll. Being proactive and ahead of the curve about sexual assault policy can only help students and administrators"

I agree with most of this piece, but one aspect that is missing is that a lot things happened ONLY after the New York Times (and others) started writing about it. Someone who was sitting next to me at at the town hall aptly observed that when it came to administrative lingo it felt as thought "'greater needs of community' also = Columbia's reputation." I think acknowledging this potential motivation for the town hall only further illuminates the stupidity with which the event was arranged, and is cause for further student criticism.

In the end, whether or not the above interpretation of motives is true or not, it's a shame that the adults charged with our well being on this campus don't at least appear to take our concerns seriously. (e.g. When I walked up to Dean Valentini at the end of the event to ask him a question, he looked me in the eye and literally ran away.)

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Anonymous posted on

Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. Thank you, Spectator, for calling out the administration on the way they have handled this issue -- like so many other institutions, with hedging and hawing and pretending they're going to do something when they're not.

After reading this, it seems clear to me that we students should make more of a ruckus until the administration responds with concrete changes. The tricky part is making that ruckus without triggering trauma in survivors. I hope we can find a way to do that.

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Anonymous posted on

Really glad to see the editorial board challenging the admins on this issue. This is how campus media can support students and highlight the bureaucratic BS that's delaying real change. Kudos.

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