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Grassroots Student Action Forcing Universities To Reform Sexual Assault Policies
Published on Wednesday, May 17, 2000
Grassroots Student Action Forcing Universities To Reform Sexual Assault Policies
by Kaya Tretjak
 
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 sexual assault.

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: safer_national@hotmail.com.

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.

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