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.

“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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