Students question Columbia’s sexual assault policy

By Assistant Campus Editor

As sexual assault on college campuses remains a controversial topic across the nation, several Columbia students are attempting to form a new organization to address the issue.

On April 1, 12 students congregated in the second floor lobby of the 916 S. Wabash Ave. Building to discuss sexual assault on campus and how the administration can better protect and accommodate students. The meeting was the first for what students hope will become a new campus committee, Colum Policy, which would address the sexual assault policies at Columbia.

As reported by The Chronicle March 10, there was one sexual offense reported to Columbia’s Office of Campus Safety & Security during the 2013 calendar year, a decrease from the four on-campus incidents reported in 2012.

Keisa Reynolds, a junior double majoring in humanities, history & social sciences and education, spearheaded the meeting to discuss the possibility of future communication between the administration and students, access to counseling services on campus and moving forward as an official organization. Reynolds said becoming a student committee—not an organization recognized by the Student Organizations Council—would allow the group to receive funding and effectively participate in administrative policy changes.

“There are plenty of people on this campus who are victims and survivors of sexual assault,” Reynolds said. “The administration is ignoring the lived realities of its students and is not asking students what it means to feel safe.”

Reynolds said the students united in response to a Feb. 28 collegewide email sent college-wide by Sharon Wilson-Taylor, associate vice president and dean of students. As reported March 10 by The Chronicle, the email stated the college had recently “enhanced” its sexual assault policy to more clearly articulate reporting procedures. The new student group thinks the college can do a better job of educating students on the policy, improving counseling services and being more receptive to students’ mental and emotional and  needs.

Representatives from several student organizations such as One Tribe, the Black Film Society and Common Ground attended the forum to share their thoughts on the issue. Though the group was small, Reynolds said it was a good start to creating an official committee that would advocate for sexual assault policy changes on campus.

“I like that we have a core group of students that want to organize,” Reynolds said. “We can work together and plan larger events to get more students involved.”

Reynolds said the group’s mission is to communicate with the administration to address cases of sexual assault. She said most students are unfamiliar with the policy, emphasizing the importance of educating the campus community.

“Sexual violence is a problem on campus,” Reynolds said. “There are people who are victims and survivors and also people who are guilty of committing sexual assault.”

Robert Koverman, associate vice president of the Office of Safety & Security, said in an emailed statement that there will be an open line of communication between his office and students.

“My office will always listen to student concerns,” Koverman said. “Any concerns or suggestions brought to our attention will certainly be considered and if those concerns, regardless of the topic, need to be brought to the attention of partner departments, we will always do that.”

One of the topics addressed at the meeting is the college’s lack of counseling services. In an emailed statement, Sharon Wilson-Taylor, associate vice president and dean of students, said the college offers students 10 counseling sessions per academic year because the sessions are funded through the Student Health Center, which is supported by the student health fee.

However, some students claim they need more than 10 sessions. Michelle Nance, president of Common Ground and a junior fashion studies major, said 10 sessions is not realistic for students dealing with emotional issues.

“Personally, I feel like I have more than 10 problems that I have to deal with throughout the school year,” Nance said. “So why do I only get 10 visits? It’s like I have 10 chances to sum up my life and get it all fixed before I get sent back to class to deal with the same issues.”

Wilson-Taylor said most students only use six to seven of the sessions and said providing 10 sessions is generous compared to other colleges in the area that maintain a six-session limit.

“To provide unlimited sessions, we would need to double or even triple the number of staff therapists, which means a higher student health fee,” Wilson-Taylor said.

Nance said she is glad this student group is evolving because students struggle with sexual assaults on campus, and if organizations begin to collaborate on campus, they will likely have more influence.

“It’s usually all of us in our different groups talking about the same issue,” Nance said. “But now we’re all together and we can share our own ideas and bring it together as a collective.”

Both Reynolds and Nance said working with the Student Government Association would be in the group’s best interest because SGA has extensive knowledge about interacting with the administration. However, they are concerned about SGA working too closely with the higher-ups, which might cause them to agree and side with the administration on contentious issues.

“Ideally it would be best not to work with an association that is through the administration,” Reynolds said. “But in order to be recognized by the administration, we do have to collaborate with as many students as possible.”

As of press time, SGA president Nicole Carroll did not respond to requests for comment.

Nance said the group needs support in terms of gaining funding and establishing a meeting place.

“We definitely need the support of other student organizations,” Nance said. “Knowing that we have student representatives on campus who can either pave the way for us or show us how to do it ourselves—that’s a great benefit to us.”

Wilson-Taylor said  the SGA has been taking action in response to students’ concerns about the college’s sexual assault policy and has embarked on a review of it and its procedures, stating that it has been speaking to the college’s counseling staff, Residence Life and the Dean’s office. She said SGA has suggested educational programming on sexual assault, which she said the college has been actively working to implement. She added that any students who have questions or feedback can email her directly.

“The administration is always striving to enhance how student concerns that are brought to our attention are addressed,” Wilson-Taylor said. “There are times when students are not in agreement with how their concern was addressed, which does not mean that the concern was not addressed appropriately.”

Nance said Colum Policy wants to see the administration listen to students even if they don’t necessarily agree with them, adding that students will be voicing their opinions in the near future.

“We’re trying to make our voices heard,” Nance said. “There is such a hierarchy and we are low on the list, yet we are the student body. It’s just a circle of endless disappointments and that’s something that needs to be fixed.”