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Columbia University Says New Sexual Assault Review Process Will Be 'Fairer'

By Emily Frost | August 15, 2014 2:53pm | Updated on August 18, 2014 8:52am
 The university's president said the new policy would help reestablish trust in its adjudication process.
Columbia University Unveils New Sexual Assault and Rape Policy
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MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — Columbia University announced another round of changes to the school's sexual assault policy — including removing students from hearing panels, adding case managers and opening a 24-hour crisis center — after a swirl of criticism over its handling of such cases last spring. 

The updates focus on trying to improve the hearing process once a rape or an assault is reported by a student, said school president Lee Bollinger.

But student groups fighting for policy changes said in a statement that the new guidelines were drafted without any student input, a move they called "unacceptable."

Under the new policy, students will no longer serve on hearing panels, making them "consistent with federal guidance," Bollinger wrote in a letter emailed to students, faculty and staff Friday morning. The panels' role is to evaluate sexual misconduct claims and reach a verdict typically resulting in either suspension or finding a student not responsible.

Individuals serving on the hearing panels "will be drawn from a designated pool of Columbia professionals with expertise in student life who have been tasked with this duty as part of their job," he wrote. 

In the past, students have said members of the panel did not seem well-versed or educated in sexual assaults, noting the process re-traumatized them after an already traumatic experience.   

The school is also adding case managers to guide students who have lodged complaints through the process, Bollinger said.  

A university spokesman said there would be three newly hired "highly trained" case managers, but could not go into detail about the specific type or level of training they'd have. 

Students on both sides of the adjudication process are now allowed to have a lawyer or advocate with them at all times during the investigation process, Bollinger wrote. Additionally, the new 24-hour sexual assault crisis center housed on the seventh floor of Lerner hall will open later this month, the statement said. 

Though Bollinger promised students that he would release data related to the amount of sexual assaults and rapes reported on campus, he has not produced it yet. A spokesman for the university said students could expect it sometime in September. 

In response to the new policy, student groups said their pleas and advocacy for a seat at the drafting table, both on campus and through the media, have "been rejected or ignored."

Among the criticisms of the new policy include no clear punishment for those found to have committed an assault and a reliance on the involvement of school deans, who critics say have a "clear bias" in the appeals process, according to the coalition of advocacy groups. Those groups include No Red Tape, The Coalition Against Sexual Violence, Take Back The Night of Barnard College at Columbia University, and Columbia Alumni Allied Against Sexual Assault.

Critics also argued there still isn't sufficient staff training for dealing with survivors, or guarantees of housing and academic changes so that victims don't have to face their perpetrators on campus during the investigation process, they added. 

In late April, 23 Barnard and Columbia students filed a federal complaint citing violations by the unversity to Title IX and the Cleary Act. The Department of Education has not determined whether it will investigate the claims. 

In May, the names of four male students accused of being "rapists" and "sexual assault violators" were scrawled onto bathroom stalls around campus.