The Problems with CUNY's New Sexual Assault Policy

CUNY makes a system-wide change, but anonymous reporting gets left out

When the vote was taken, and City University’s Board of Trustees had approved its new system-wide sexual assault policy, there was a palpable sense of relief in the audience.

The dozen or so people—students, recent graduates, women’s center staffers, and others—who had come to the board’s meeting on the 14th floor of Baruch College’s Vertical Campus to watch the vote on June 28 applauded, smiled, and gave the thumbs-up. The unanimous voice affirmation was the capstone to two years of meetings, e-mails, wrangling, activism, and student forums working toward a comprehensive policy for CUNY.

But while most everyone involved in that effort agrees the policy is a step forward for a university that encompasses 23 schools, many also worry that it doesn’t go far enough. Questions remain about whether students should be allowed to report incidents with complete anonymity, and whether there will be enough education for students to be able to avoid or stop attacks. Others worry about the implementation process for the policy that took effect July 1: Will schools be ready come fall? And will students be made sufficiently aware of the services now available to them under the new rules?

Sexual assault has long been known to be the nation’s most underreported violent crime. According to a 2000 report from the National Institute of Justice, a division of the U.S. Justice Department, “Most sexual assaults on campus are committed by an acquaintance of the victim, which explains, in part, why these crimes are underreported.” The U.S. Department of Education reported nearly 5,000 “forcible sexual assaults” on campuses nationwide in 2008. The NIJ report estimated that nearly one out of every five women who attended college (for an average of five years) could expect some type of sexual assault.

Previously, schools under the CUNY system were largely left to their own devices when it came to providing sexual assault information to students. With that in mind, two years ago, a pair of students who had been active in women’s issues on campus—Elischia Fludd, a B.A./M.A. student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Jerin Alam, an undergrad at Hunter College—approached the university to make a change.

Fludd and Alam connected through a group called Students Active for Ending Rape, which was founded in 2000 in the wake of Columbia University’s sexual assault policy debates. They met with Frederick Schaffer, the university’s general counsel and vice chancellor for legal affairs. His office was already looking into the issue, so the students’ proposal was a timely fit. A taskforce of administrators, students, counselors, women’s center staffers, and attorneys crafted a draft proposal, which over the next two years was haggled over via e-mail and at public hearings held on campuses through the five boroughs to gather input from rank-and-file students.

“It was really important to us to have a process that was open and inclusive,” says Fludd. She says the feedback gathered showed that CUNY students wanted a unified policy, one they could find “on the Web or if they walked into a counseling center or women’s center.”

Under the new policy, students are advised what to do if they are attacked either on or off campus, including not showering and not discarding the clothes they were wearing, as critical evidence for a prosecution could be lost. The policy also requires that CUNY schools provide students with a list of local hospitals, including those “specially equipped to handle sexual assaults.”

Students who have been sexually assaulted will also be provided with a trained, campus-specific “advocate” who will guide them through their options: counseling, filing a complaint through CUNY’s disciplinary process, or pressing criminal charges. The policy also requires “periodic training” in prevention and handling of sexual assault cases for all “relevant personnel” at each CUNY campus, “including public safety officers, counselors, student affairs staff, and resident hall assistants.” The training will also be available to faculty and staff—anyone who would come into contact with a student who has been attacked.

In the end, the students got most of what they were looking for in the final policy. Alam, for one, is grateful to CUNY “for recognizing the importance of a university-wide policy and passing it.”

Still, sticking points remain. Alam and others wanted CUNY’s final document to include a provision that would allow students to report an attack anonymously, as is done at other schools in the city and elsewhere.

A 2005 report from the NIJ found that students are more likely to report sexual assaults not just if a clear policy is in place, but also if they’re given the option of reporting without giving their names, “which allows the crime to be ‘counted,’ while letting the victim decide whether to file an official report,” the NIJ wrote. (The report also noted that some students may not want to risk punishment themselves if, for example, the student violated the school’s alcohol policy prior to being attacked.) CUNY requires students to give their names, but promises that their identities will be kept confidential, unless the school decides to divulge them to law enforcement for security purposes.

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