Columbia Unveils New Sexual Assault Policy, Students Are Not Impressed


After provoking student ire by fighting campus rape by, uh, canceling a concert, the Columbia administration has finally come out with a revised and updated sexual assault and harassment policy. It’s a marked improvement from the previous policy — I mean, it would be hard to get much worse — but on-campus activists take issue with it, saying it was written entirely without student input.

In January of this year, Columbia student Anna Bahr published a rage-inducing piece on Bwog, a campus news site, in which she revealed the utterly deplorable state of the University’s sexual assault adjudication process. In the piece, she spoke with three women who had all been sexually assaulted by the same man; all three went through a humiliating and inept hearing process, and none got any measure of justice. The assailant was allowed to remain on campus. He was never punished. One of his victims suffered from depression in the aftermath of her assault botched investigation and, denied appropriate mental health accommodations, went on to receive Incompletes in half of her classes.

In April, 23 students filed a federal lawsuit against the school for mishandling sexual assault investigations. Like every other school accused of mishandling rape and permitting a hostile sexual environment to flourish on campus, the administration of Columbia has made a big show of implementing serious change. But how serious are they, really?

The updated policy, which was announced this morning in an email to students from President Lee C. Bollinger obtained by Jezebel, will implement dramatic changes is several areas, as Bwog outlines. Students will no longer serve on hearing panels for sexual assault and harassment cases, for one, although it’s insane that they were ever allowed to do that in the first place. In addition, the complainant and the respondent are both allowed to bring an adviser or an attorney to the hearing with them, and six new staff members have been added to the Office of Sexual Violence Response. The school has also adopted an affirmative consent standard, defining consent as requiring “unambiguous communication and mutual agreement concerning the act in which the participants are engaging” and noting that “silence or absence of resistance is not the same as consent.”

In a statement to Bwog, five student groups criticized the new policy as inadequate and stated that they were “deeply troubled” that it was “drafted without input from students.” As such, they argue, it fails to address several concerns students have raised over the past year:

It is misrepresentative for Columbia to characterize these reforms as a response to student concerns. It is clear from both the content of the new policy and the process by which it was developed that this revision was largely an effort to ensure their baseline compliance with the recently enacted Campus SaVE Act and D.O.E. regulations. This policy does not reflect students’ needs, and changes made are not adequate to ensure student safety…
Essential student concerns have not been meaningfully addressed in the new policy. For example, 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. Students have been raising these concerns and many others for months, yet this policy does nothing to address them.

The new policy says that students “may request” additional accommodations, and the Gender-Based Misconduct Office will determine whether they’re appropriate or not. Definitely not guaranteed. As for the sanctioning guidelines, the procedure for determining appropriate punishments for students found responsible for sexual misconduct is pretty damn nebulous. Also, it leaves a lot to the discretion to a university-appointed Sanctioning Officer:

All hearing panel determinations will be referred to the Sanctioning Officer of the respondent’s school. The Sanctioning Officer will impose sanctions that are:
Fair and appropriate given the facts of the particular case;
Consistent with the University’s handling of similar cases;
Adequate to protect the safety of the campus community; and
Reflective of the seriousness of gender-based misconduct.

Impose fair and appropriate sanctions! Consistent with the University’s handling of similar cases! Uh, considering that the University was so poor at handling sexual assault cases in the past that students had to resort to vigilante justice, I’m not sure this is the best method. It’s also dangerously vague.

“Our goal is and always has been to work with the administration,” say the student groups in their statement, adding, “These oversights might have been avoided if student voices had been included in this process. With this in mind, we call on the President’s office to meet with student survivors and organizers immediately, openly, and regularly to discuss ways to reform Columbia’s policies and procedures for responding to sexual assault.”

Hopefully, they’re able to work together and create something that fully serves students’ needs. And, once again, colleges administrations need to realize that, in order to keep students safe, they must actually put students first.

Image via Getty.

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