As a direct result of grassroots student action, Columbia University
has taken an unprecedented step in recognizing and combating campus sexual
violence. With the passage of a new sexual assault policy last February,
three years of mobilization have placed Columbia student activists at the
forefront of a national movement to reform the way universities deal with
Institutions of higher learning nationwide routinely sweep under the
rug incidents of campus sexual violence, each fearing the consequences its
reputation would suffer should it be the first to break the code of
silence. Ineffective disciplinary policies retraumatize survivors, and
students remain undereducated about the basic issues of sexual violence.
By failing to respond adequately to this crisis, universities send the
implicit message that sexual assault is acceptable.
Last year, hundreds of U.S. universities reported zero campus sexual
assaults. Common knowledge among students and administrators belies the
falsity of these statistics. Columbia's new sexual assault policy replaces
a highly inaccessible disciplinary procedure that saw only two
disciplinary cases in five years, both of which were dismissed, despite
the fact that both the University's and a nearby hospital's rape crisis
centers are kept busy with a steady flow of students.
The recent advance in university practices pertaining to sexual
assault is a direct result of broad-based student mobilizing efforts.
Columbia's new, student-driven policy makes Columbia the only university
in the nation with a full-time position devoted to dealing with
disciplinary issues surrounding sexual assault, in addition to a full-time
position already dedicated to maintaining a university rape crisis center.
The policy establishes comprehensive oversight mechanisms with meaningful
participation by students, faculty and administrators. It ensures accurate
collection of statistics on sexual assault and forcefully addresses campus
education and prevention needs. The new policy also establishes a
groundbreaking disciplinary procedure that provides a fair hearing while
remaining accessible to survivors.
Years of court rulings and administrative complacency show that
students must take action to achieve reform in university handling of
sexual assault. The courts have repeatedly upheld the rights of universities to
discipline their students in virtually whatever way they see fit. This
includes egregious behind-closed-doors procedures presided over by
untrained administrators, with no oversight or appeals mechanisms.
Innumerable meetings and panels with school administrators also showed
students that only united action will achieve true reform. Students have
been attempting to reform the University's sexual assault policies since
the early 1990s.
Last year, led by Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER),
Columbia students built a broad-based movement through numerous
presentations and teach-ins, exerting massive student pressure through
University-wide rallies and demonstrations which were covered by local and
national media. As a result of in-depth research, students composed what
is deemed the nation's most progressive university sexual assault policy.
In the weeks following the victory at Columbia, students from over a dozen
universities nationwide have contacted SAFER seeking assistance in
reforming their own schools' unresponsive policies.
SAFER is currently in the process of forming a national network in order
to unite localized student campaigns for reform, and has already secured
the support of national organizations dedicated to combating sexual
violence, including the NOW Legal Defense Fund and the national YWCA.
SAFER's goal is to elevate the issue of campus sexual assault policies to
a national level and empower campus efforts to write or rewrite policies
through the increased flow of information and support. Such a network will
provide students all over the country with the resources and expertise
needed to establish proactive sexual assault policies at their
universities by offering organizational, legal, media, research and
financial support to local grassroots efforts. SAFER can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Policies bearing progressive change in university dealings with sexual
assault can only be implemented when students organize themselves and
pressure their institutions into recognizing and battling this hushed-up
issue. Campaigns like the one at Columbia University are brewing on
campuses across the nation; progress is in the hands of students like
those who have made the change possible at Columbia and who are taking the
struggle to a national level.
Kaya Tretjak is a Columbia University student and serves on the
SAFER National executive board.