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Debating a Sexual Assault Policy
Following months of student protest, outcry, and vigilantism, Columbia University announced a new "gender-based misconduct" policy on Friday. But some of the student groups that complained about the university's original policies say the revision falls short and was drafted with little student input.
In a written response to the changes, five campus activist groups -- No Red Tape Columbia, the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, Columbia Alumni Against Sexual Assault, Title IX Team, and Take Back the Night of Barnard College at Columbia University -- dismissed the new policy as an effort to "ensure baseline compliance" with U.S. Department of Education regulations.
"We are deeply troubled that this policy was drafted without input from students and fails to address the serious and urgent concerns raised by survivors and concerned students over the past year," the groups stated. "This is unacceptable. It is misrepresentative for Columbia to characterize these reforms as a response to student concerns."
The policy, which the university said is based on guidance from the Department of Education, bars students from serving on hearing panels, allows victims and the accused to be represented by lawyers, and provides a larger role for experienced campus investigators. Six new staff positions at the university's office of sexual violence and response have been created and a new support center will open on campus later this month.
Case managers will now help guide survivors through the reporting process, and the policy makes clear which offices and resources can and cannot keep student complaints confidential.
"Today's new policy is one among many reforms we have initiated to try to deal with what is most certainly a national issue and -- of greater importance to us -- a Columbia University issue," Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, said in a statement on Friday.
Several colleges unveiled new sexual assault policies in recent months, including two of Columbia's fellow Ivy League institutions, Dartmouth College and Harvard University. Often the changes have come following student protests, and Columbia is no different.
Last February, hundreds of students signed a petition demanding that the university release data on the number, nature and resolutions of gender-based misconduct on campus. In April, 23 students filed a federal complaint, alleging several Title IX and Clery Act violations. A month later, the names of four alleged rapists were written on the wall of a bathroom stall. The names began appearing in restrooms and other buildings around campus, and eventually on fliers.
The new policy does little to address many of the concerns that prompted the outrage and vigilantism, the five activist groups said in their statement Friday.
"This policy does not guarantee accommodations like housing and academic changes for survivors, it does not establish clear or useful sanctioning guidelines, it does not sufficiently improve the training for staff members who interact with survivors, and it leaves the appeals process in the hands of deans with no expertise, inadequate training, and a clear bias," they wrote.
Saying they were "blindsided" by its unveiling, the groups said that the only input students were able to submit regarding the new policy came during a brief meeting two days before the changes were announced. Just 10 students were invited, according to the activists, and they were only allowed to ask questions about a policy that had already been written.
"As far as we, students involved with the activism surrounding sexual assault, know, the policy was not drafted in conjunction with students," Rakhi Agrawal, media liaison for Take Back the Night at Barnard College, said. "Instead, it was provided to a select group of a handful of students, already written, behind closed doors. This is not the level of student input that we wanted, hoped for, advocated for, or deserve."
Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, an organizer with No Red Tape Columbia and one of the complainants in the Title IX complaint, was part of that select group of students. The small gathering also included members of the student government and students involved with freshmen orientation programs.
Ridolfi-Starr said the meeting felt "disingenuous."
"They said 'that's a great idea' or 'that's a great point,' but gave no indication of how we could actually make those points in a more formal way," she said. "They said they were really interested in getting feedback but they weren't sure how to do that. That was really difficult to hear for those of us who felt like we were trying to give feedback for the previous year by writing op-eds, writing and submitting policy proposals, attending every town hall meeting, speaking on the national news. We tried every avenue to communicate with them."
Robert Hornsby, associate vice president for media relations at Columbia, said many components of the new policy were developed as a "direct response" to concerns expressed by students in a series of formal and informal meetings last year. He said further input may have been stymied by a quick deadline for creating the new provisions and that the policy is a work in progress.
"Because the policy had to be in place prior to the start of the academic year so that Columbia complied with new legal requirements and guidance, the timetable for developing it was very tight," Hornsby said. "Still, as the policy's first page states, student comments and suggestions will be welcome throughout the school year."
In his statement, Bollinger also said that the changes come from listening to community recommendations, and that he welcomes further input as the policy is refined.
"Everyone’s ideas are welcome and valuable in achieving the ultimate end here," he said, "which is to make Columbia a place where students feel safe, respected, and fully able to experience the extraordinary education and social opportunities the institution provides."
But until students can more easily weigh in on the policy through official channels, Ridolfi-Starr said the statements from administrators are empty promises.
"The new policy is not good enough," she said. "It's going to continue to fail survivors and harm students as long as survivors and students are not a part of the process. They need to be involved in a meaningful way, not just meetings where administrators bob their heads, say 'I hear you,' and never talk about it again."
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