The Problems with CUNY's New Sexual Assault Policy

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

“Confidentiality and anonymity will be protected to the greatest extent possible,” says Schaffer. “But because of the variety of circumstances or public safety concerns that need to be addressed, it is impossible to grant anonymity or confidentiality in every case.”

“Most people seem to misunderstand what anonymous reporting is,” insists Alam, who notes that Columbia and NYU both manage to offer anonymity to assault victims without incident. “We are not asking CUNY to forfeit the rights of the accused: CUNY has some of the strongest safeguards to protect the accused of any type of wrongdoing. Instead, we are asking CUNY to make it easier for victims of the most underreported crime to come forward and seek the assistance they need.”

Columbia University drew fire over the issue of anonymity a decade ago when it implemented its own campus-wide campus assault policy. Critics said Columbia denied accused students their rights to due process because it did not guarantee the right to hear or cross-examine witnesses, and did not allow them to have an attorney present during disciplinary hearings or appeals. Yet even the anonymity afforded at Columbia is no guarantee of satisfaction for students who bring charges: In an anonymous op-ed for the Columbia Spectator, one student recently described pursuing disciplinary action against a student she said twice raped her, only to have a dean overturn the disciplinary panel’s recommendations.

(The Voice, reached out to Columbia for information and comment on its sexual assault policy, but “[d]ue to a busy period focused on preparing for summer and fall student enrollment, we are unavailable for an interview at this time,” according to Phung Tran-Khamphounvong, communications director for Columbia Health Services. She said the Voice was welcome “to conduct independent research using the Columbia Web site.”)

Another concern regards preventative education. The new CUNY policy instructs each college to develop its own materials and programs to educate students, faculty, and staff on the “nature, dynamics, common circumstances, and effects” of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking, and the “means to reduce their occurrence and prevent them.” Alam and others, like Katie Gentile, director of John Jay’s women’s center, wish that CUNY had specified a minimum education standard for the colleges to meet.

Gentile will soon begin developing the materials and programs for John Jay with the help of outside advocates. “The policy says each school will develop these things, so I will,” she says, while continuing “to push for standardized and evidence-based protocols and trainings across CUNY.” Some schools are better equipped than others. John Jay, for example, has a women’s center where other schools do not.

“Without minimum education being spelled out in the policy, [the schools] might not do it,” Alam says. “Why would schools put the time into the education?”

Prior to the CUNY vote, several local politicians, including U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler and members of the City Council, wrote to CUNY urging the university to reconsider its position on anonymous reporting and codify a minimum level of preventative education.

As it stands, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Peter Jordan is sending copies of the new sexual assault policy to the chief student affairs officers at each campus, directing that this information be included in the fall student orientation, according to a CUNY spokeswoman. Training materials for campus staff are being prepared at CUNY Central, and “that training will take place as soon as possible” come fall, the spokeswoman continues, adding: “Campus Safety Officer recruits all receive about 25 hours of training in dealing with sex crimes during their initial training.”

The “trickle effect” from CUNY Central gives the policy “great importance,” Fludd says. It shows that “CUNY as a complete entity is taking this seriously—presidents are aware of it, staff is aware of it, and that flows down to students,” who are often the last ones to know about policy changes.

Gentile, like Fludd and others, hopes that the new policy will be a “plastic document” that can develop over the years as the need arises. CUNY’s policy provides for an annual review, and Fludd believes her group, Students for a Greater CUNY, has identified committed undergrads to carry the torch.

“Really great. Glad we have it,” Gentile says of the policy. “Could be better.”

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