Opinion | Op-eds

University needs to focus on individuals, not policy

Everyone knows a runner should protect her feet. But what if you have a 5k coming up and you hate your feet? (There’s no reason you should hate them—except that somebody touched them without your permission.) You were assaulted and you fought back. You know it could have been so much worse, but you’re still left feeling as though part of your body is contaminated because someone else grabbed it without your permission.

For survivors of sexual assault like me, running is no longer a refuge. Consider this: What if every time you ran you became nauseous with worry? What if the uncertainty you felt while running pervaded everything and made you constantly question whether or not you’re safe?

Much of the discussion we’ve engaged in as a university is about creating a process in which we can clearly see the person who violated the rules and monitor his or her punishment. We’ve also tried to provide these injured runners with the help they need, but we need to widen our awareness. Sexual assault victims who cannot file for judicial proceedings or name their assailants also need help.

I’m not a stranger to the resources available to assaulted students—I’m informed. I know who both Amy Zavadil and La’Shawn Rivera are, and what their positions entail. I can tell you that resident assistants and professors are mandatory reporters while psychologists at Counseling and Psychological Services and Rosemary Furman Counseling Center aren’t (unless there’s something exceptional like a court-issued subpoena).

I know the actions that are recommended for a student who’s been assaulted—I didn’t take them. I know I should have gone to Public Safety and had them lead me to the starting line with the police. I know I should have done something other than curl into a fetal position in my room and worry my roommate.

I couldn’t do it.

At the time, I feared that going to the police would have made my already shitty day cataclysmic. I feared having to explain myself and live through the situation again, breaking more each time.

I knew I needed help, so I made an appointment at the Furman Center. I never said why—only that I was anxious and couldn’t sleep. But I hid the injured foot that needed treatment, and pretended it didn’t exist while I was there. I was asked questions that I didn’t answer and felt both compelled but unable to use my voice properly.

I stayed silent because it was safer. I canceled my next appointment. I never came back, and I never want to. I ran away from it just as I ran away from him.

I ran. I run. Running saved me and it continued to push me through. The occasional runner’s high after consecutive virtually sleepless weeks enabled me to survive the pain and weakness I both felt and despised myself for. But I can’t keep running. The muscle fatigue is too painful—it’s destroying me.

The reforms in the adjudication process that groups like Columbia College University Democrats and No Red Tape Columbia are advocating are great, but they don’t properly address the needs of another group of victims/survivors on campus. Like me, there are others who can’t ask for disciplinary action against our assailant because the assailant’s identity is unknown. This is not an insignificant number—16 percent of women do not know their assailants.

[Related: Take Back the Night participants call for sexual assault policy reform]

I feel vastly under-supported and failed by the University’s institutions because I can’t seek an adjudication process, and I don’t know where I fit. I wasn’t raped. I didn’t want to call Nightline that night—I didn’t want to exist, and individual counseling didn’t suit me. I have to keep going as if nothing happened. 

I’m tired of running—it’s time to stop and speak about the other, unheard side of this discussion. We need to stop and help those who felt the need to run away, who can’t ask for justice.

When we talk about University policies to help victims/survivors on campus, we need to consider all types of assault that occur, and the differing needs of individuals, because that’s who we are: individual people.

Aggregate information on the adjudication process can help us and the University get better, but more specific resources not tied to formal University procedures can help us—the individuals—get better. For example, starting a regular support group for victims/survivors to talk about their experiences and how they moved forward would allow survivors to have a space when they’re ready to talk.

One-time self-defense classes could also be held. Sometimes, student groups host their own, and one is offered as a physical education class. Although I pulled free, I consider it a result of luck and not knowledge.

Our participation in this race to create change for the better is just as essential as the voices already included, and we deserve a place at the starting line even if what is needed to move forward is a little outside the predesignated route.

The author is a Barnard College student. She has been granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of this piece. 

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

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Anonymous posted on

I'm really confused by this writing style...

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Anonymous posted on

This is a brave and powerful piece, thank you for sharing your experience and reminding our community that we must always center our calls for reform on the varied needs of survivors.

I just want to note that both No Red Tape and the Coalition Against Sexual Violence are actually pushing for changes that go way beyond the adjudication process--for example, increased professional staffing at the RCC, more accessible and better trained counselors for sexual violence at CPS and Furman, better training on trans* and queer competency for all who work with survivors, free Plan B and medical services for survivors at Health Services, and more.

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Anonymous posted on

That's right. No Red Tape, CASV and allied organizations fully support more survivor support groups, as well as self-defense training. And to the author: it's completely correct that the dialogue on campus should include the stories of all kinds of survivors, including those like yours, who don't seek adjudication. Thank you for describing your experiences.

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