College communication must include sexual assault

By Associate Editor

As Northwestern University students protest their college administration’s handling of a student’s report of being sexually assaulted by a professor, the issue is gaining national attention and forcing students to examine how their own colleges deal with rape.

While Columbia proficiently reports sexual assaults as mandated by federal law, the college could do more to prevent sexual assaults. The college’s current approach, which reports sexual crimes collectively once a year, is one of passive silence and does little to address the problem.

The college releases an annual crime report—with each report detailing incidents from the previous year—on its website in accordance with the Clery Act, a federal statute that requires all colleges that receive federal funding to disclose the frequency of on-campus crimes to the United States Department of Education. According to 2013’s Annual Crime Statistics and Fire Safety Report, there were 15 sexual assaults on Columbia’s campus between the 2010 academic year and the 2012 academic year. But the annual disclosure model is neither realistic or timely, nor does it force students to face the reality of sexual assaults. If students even bother to read through the 30-page report, they would only see a series of numbers that dilute very real, preventable experiences into easily ignored statistics. Throwing meaningless numbers at students each year allows them to get away with regarding sexual assault as something that happened in the past rather than something that is still happening. It is more important to inform students of sex crimes as they are reported because it fosters a dialogue between the college and its students about what is going on and how it can be combated.

The first step to facilitating this conversation is to begin disclosing details of on-campus sexual assaults as they occur through mass alerts, just as the college informs students of robberies. Currently, the college mass reports crimes only if administrators are informed in a timely manner, meaning reports months after an assault are not relayed to students until the annual report is released. When reported sexual assaults are ignored, possible victims of future assaults are left in the dark—a disservice to every student, not just those living on campus.

Unlike robberies, though, sexual assaults deserve more attention than just an email. Too often, the college relies solely on email communication and does not put much stock in human interaction. In a March 3 email to the campus community, the Office of Campus Safety & Security issued a warning about an alleged sexual assault that occurred on the far South Side. The email made it clear that the suspects were not affiliated with Columbia but did not specify how the assault is relevant. The email only offered tips on how to identify and avoid date rape drugs.

A Feb. 28 email to the campus community from Dean of Students Sharon Wilson-Taylor detailed the creation of a Student Sexual Assault Awareness Education Committee and told students to watch for on-campus events that will address sexual assault in April in observance of Sexual Assault Awareness month. These measures are long overdue, but running comprehensive workshops year round, particularly during orientation and Weeks of Welcome, would be more beneficial. Awareness events shouldn’t be confined to the month of April but should occur monthly when school is in session.

Sexual assault is a reality that many college students face. One in Four, a rape prevention group, found that 20 percent of women and 4 percent of men in college report that they are survivors of rape. A high 42 percent of survivors do not report their rape, according to the organization.

Alerting students to crimes as they are reported is not the only solution to sexual assault on campus; an increased reprimand process for alcohol violations could also help. Robert Koverman, associate vice president of Safety & Security, and Martha Meegan, director of Safety & Security, have said that there is a link between sexual assaults and alcohol.

Alcohol violations on campus are at an all-time high in Columbia’s residence halls and have rapidly increased over a short period of two years, according to the crime report. In 2010, 257 alcohol violations occurred on campus and in 2012, the number of violations reached 440, a 71 percent increase. Because the University Center is a dorm shared with other colleges, some schools do not regulate drinking in the building. Students can easily bring alcohol, among other things, into the dorms. The idea of searching bags as students enter dorms is extreme but a harsher punishment for alcohol violations is not.

One sexual assault is one too many. The college needs to inform students of assaults on campus as they are reported. It also needs to examine systemic issues that contribute to the problem, such as the culture of alcohol consumption in dorms. Informing students about instances of sexual assault may encourage victims to come forward and inspire more students to report offenses.