Dems Logo

Bwog sent Features Editor Alexander Pines to get the scoop on recent Dems and USenate activism on campus. Here’s his report.

Following up on their October 9th petition to increase transparency in Columbia’s reporting of sexual assault and other gender-based misconduct, the Columbia Democrats, in association with several other student groups as part of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, are planning to release a statement detailing a comprehensive list of suggested reforms addressing Columbia’s sexual assault policy after a meeting with Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER) in the coming week.

For now, Dems President Sejal Singh, CC ’15, is “very happy” to see President Bollinger’s response to the statement published by the University Senate’s Student Affairs Committee (SAC) Sunday night. “This is a major step towards transparency and accountability. I’m very happy to see President Bollinger understands the urgency of student concerns and is implementing several of our proposed reforms. I think this demonstrates that united student voices can change their communities for the better and that the administration is willing to work with us on tangible reforms. There is more to be done and we’ll be working with the administration over the coming months on the next steps, but this letter demonstrates commitment to finding a solution at the highest level of the University — and that united student voices can make a difference in their communities.” She also wished to express her gratitude toward the Title IX team, the class councils, members of the University Senate, and all of the survivors who reached out to share their stories.

The Dems have been actively working to reform Columbia’s sexual assault policy since last spring, when several students approached them with concerns over its lack of transparency in reporting and questions of its effectiveness. This came alongside a tidal wave of other Title IX cases surfacing at schools such as Duke, Yale, and Amherst. In October, the Dems released a petition calling for the school to release “information on the number, nature, and judicial resolution of cases of sexual assault, rape, and gender-based misconduct which are reported to University officials and involve students of Columbia University and Barnard College.” According to the Huffington Post, even though this petition was signed by 650 students, the University refused to release the data.

University Senator Marc Heinrich, CC ’16, insists that the information is necessary in order to diagnose problems with Columbia’s policy. Now that President Bollinger has promised to release a more comprehensive and aggregated report, Marc says, “I’m thrilled that President Bollinger responded to student concerns and activism over the issue and has largely adopted our policy recommendations. I’m looking forward to working with him and other administrators in the coming months to continue to enact reform and restore confidence in the system. CU Dems have done a fantastic job raising awareness on the issue the past few months and this would not have been possible without them.”

Additionally, having that information readily available would assist students in understanding the realistic responses of the university to cases of sexual assault and gender-based misconduct, from total numbers of reported incidents to typical accommodations and interim measures—even the average number of days a case is open. While the official policy posits an optimistic sixty day timeframe for resolution of cases, some stretch on for many months as reported by Anna Bahr (BC ’14) for The Blue and White. However, the Dems stress that the preservation of survivors’ anonymity is still of the utmost importance, and they would not like to see reporting following Yale’s model, which details descriptions of the alleged assaults that could be potentially triggering to survivors (or out them).

Another issue is the Rape Crisis Center, a safe space for survivors housed on Barnard’s campus. It is not open during NSOP or past midnight on the weekend, and while there is a 24/7 hotline, many students have told the Dems that the experience of the hotline is not personal enough and they would prefer to be able to physically access a safe location. Additionally, there is the question of access—the RCC is in Hewitt Hall, which means that while Barnard students are free to enter the building without disclosing where they’re going, CC, SEAS, and GS students must tell the security guard that they’re visiting the center upon entry and have to give up their CUID as they do so. Finally, the RCC’s website itself doesn’t list the exact location of the RCC and instead advises potential visitors to call the hotline for instruction. While these limitations are intended to keep the space free of unwanted intruders, the Dems fear that they may be acting as deterrents.

The Dems and University Senators have been meeting with administrators since last semester and are working closely with Dean Martinez to try and solve the problems with the policy without having to rewrite it. “We need to restore confidence to the system,” said Heinrich. Part of this restoration of confidence would involve the creation of a public forum (such as the one the SAC called for in the statement sent out last Sunday) for students to directly voice their concerns about the fact that, for many of them, Columbia is not “a healthy and safe environment in which every member of the community can realize her or his fullest potential.” Currently, the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault (PACSA) only has two students, one of whom wishes to retain their anonymity as a survivor. While Heinrich would like to preserve a space for students to confidentially express their concerns, he also hopes to see “a body for open discourse” in which all students can voice their problems with the system and communicate directly with the powers that be.

In the spirit of open discourse, the Dems have been circulating a letter encouraging students from all schools to email their deans and voice their discontent. According to Singh (and reported in the Huffington Post on Monday), over one hundred students and alumni have sent such an email–and this has all been uniformly endorsed by the SAC. 

While administrators have been receptive and generally in support of reforms to the policy, the Coalition does have a backup plan. Should reform fail, the issue would then be taken to the Senate, where any new policy (were it to pass) would be implemented unless overridden by the Board of Trustees. As of now, however, University administrators have been cooperating with student efforts to make internal reforms. Heinrich and Singh told Bwog that the university is apparently attempting to streamline PACSA in order to make it more responsive in light of recent media attention.

Indeed, in a meeting Bwog had with Dean Martinez last month, she passionately expressed the need to correct this system. She said that both she and Scott Wright were dedicated to making sure that “if we’re not doing something right for students,” then they amend that wrong. “We want to get this right.” Her main concerns are that students are educated about both sexual violence itself and the systems in place for students in the event of an assault. Like many of us, she believes it is important for students to report when something happens. However, she worries about the confidentiality of involved parties with potential reforms.

This issue will be brought to the forefront of the next Senate Plenary Meeting, at 1:15 in Jerome Greene Hall (Law School) on Friday, February 7th. Only Senators are able to participate in the meeting, but the Democrats are planning a demonstration at the event in order to show student solidarity for reform. Overall, both the Dems and the USenate are hoping for comprehensive reform passed with cooperation from the administration.