Six students at Yale were found guilty of rape or sexual assault last semester. Of the six, four were given nothing more than written reprimands, one was forced to attend gender sensitivity training and one was suspended for two semesters. All of the students were allowed to return to campus.
Sadly, there is no reason to believe that the situation at Yale is unusual. A string of more than a dozen recent federal Title IX investigations has revealed that not only do many schools fail to adequately punish convicted rapists, they effectively make it virtually impossible for a reported assailant to be convicted. Other times, schools allow their judicial process to drag out over months or years so that alleged assailants often graduate before any conclusion is reached. These reports have made it clear that students cannot simply assume that schools are fulfilling their legal obligation to ensure student safety. Students know they need to demand that colleges and universities prove that they are protecting their students’ rights to safety and equal access to education.
Currently, Columbia University doesn’t release even the most basic information about how its sexual assault policy is applied or what a survivor can expect when going through the judicial process. It does not release information about what percentage of reported assailants are convicted through Columbia’s judicial process, what type of punishments they generally receive, or how long the process typically takes. Earlier this year a number of students, including several survivors who had been through the process, explained their concerns to the Columbia University College Democrats (CU Dems). The students were worried that Columbia’s policy had the same problems witnessed at dozens of other schools. To ensure that Columbia University fulfills its obligation to student safety, the CU Dems launched a petition to demand that Columbia University release this information.
The petition immediately garnered support among students, and to date has received over 1000 signatures. It has been endorsed by religious groups, social organizations and virtually every political group on campus, including the Columbia College Student Council, Columbia Queer Alliance, Student Worker Solidarity, Take Back the Night, the Muslim Students Association and the College Republicans. The petition was also covered extensively by campus media. Among the Columbia community, the petition is considered an wholly uncontroversial response to the failures of other schools and the concerns of students.
This campaign provides an opportunity for Columbia to make a real commitment to transparency and student safety, but so far Columbia administrators have not responded to student concerns. The petition is, however, set to be considered by a subcommittee of the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault. The CU Dems will be working with other student groups to present campus concerns to the committee.
The almost complete lack of transparency and accountability in Columbia’s sexual assault policy is not the only issue students are addressing. Because of an administrative division among Columbia’s schools, most students at Columbia University do not have safe and private access to the school’s rape crisis center. To gain entry, most student have to identify themselves to a building security guard, tell the guard that they’re going to the rape crisis center and give the guard their photo ID, all in a public hallway where they could easily be overheard by other students. This policy effectively requires survivors of rape and sexual assault to publicly out themselves in order to access the specialized support services that the rape crisis center offers. Many students have said this policy makes them extremely uncomfortable. Conversations with survivors revealed that the inaccessible location of the office makes the very painful process of reporting or recovering from an assault even more difficult.
If Columbia University failes to respond, it will effectively be sending the message that students do not have the right to know whether they are safe from rape and sexual assault on campus. It will be an implicit admission that the university believes student concerns—about appropriate punishments for assailants and how committed the university is to ensuring the safety of its students—are inconsequential. If Columbia does not fix the issues at the rape crisis center, it will continue to force survivors of rape and sexual assault to publicly out themselves in order to receive treatment.
We will soon find out whether Columbia University will address the fears of students and survivors by releasing this information or whether it will ignore student concerns. This decision has the potential to affect Columbia’s image: the school can either be seen as a forceful advocate for student welfare and safety or as a university that doesn’t show any concern for student welfare. The choice is Columbia’s.