Reforms to Sexual Harassment Policies on Campus: Cases Still Underreported

Cecilia María Salvi and Liza Shapiro

Governor Cuomo signed the “Enough is Enough” bill into law on 7 July, 2015. It strengthens current college sexual harassment and violence policies by requiring campuses to adopt a uniform definition of affirmative consent and establish an amnesty policy for students under the influence of drugs or alcohol who report instances of sexual or gender harassment or assault. It also increases training for law enforcement officers. Both the bill and the mandated proposed amendments to the CUNY Board of Trustees’ bylaws (article XV), which are set to go before the Board on 1 October, resulted from increased attention from the federal government and campus groups fighting against the “rape culture” prevalent on campuses across the nation.
Last year, the Board revised and updated its Policy on Sexual Misconduct. And this past May, the University Student Senate (USS) passed a resolution in support of the university’s efforts to protect students from discrimination in higher education. This was the first time the organization took a stand on this issue. The resolution called for USS members and the School of Public Health to conduct participatory research on the nature and extent of on-campus harassment, impelled by the desire to “foster a safe learning environment for students, faculty, administrators, and staff and promote transparency in disciplinary processes.”

We applaud these initiatives, particularly in light of the sobering survey, “AAU Campus Survey On Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct,” released by the Association of American Universities on 21 September. Administered across twenty-seven universities nationwide, the survey attempted to “assess the incidence, prevalence, and characteristics of incidents of sexual assault and misconduct.” Its findings revealed that on average, twenty percent of undergraduate female students and five percent of undergraduate male students experienced sexual harassment or assault.

Note that only nineteen percent of eligible students responded to the survey. This low rate of response casts the survey’s findings in an even more significant light when compared to the estimated rate of those who experience sexual misconduct or assault. The most common reason for not reporting incidents of sexual assault and sexual misconduct is that it is not considered serious enough. Other reasons allude to shame and concern that the reporting process is emotionally strenuous. Neither should it be ignored that many victims “did not think anything would be done about it.” These varied reasons also explain, in part, why overall rates of reporting to campus officials and law enforcement or others were low—ranging from five percent to twenty-eight percent, depending on the specific type of behavior.

The following quotes represent the definitions the Board expects to adopt into its Policy on Sexual Misconduct: “Sexual harassment includes unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, such as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, graphic and electronic communications or physical conduct that is sufficiently serious to adversely affect an individual’s participation in employment, education or other CUNY activities.

Gender-based harassment is unwelcome conduct of a nonsexual nature based on an individual’s actual or perceived sex, including conduct based on gender identity, gender expression, and nonconformity with gender stereotypes that is sufficiently serious to adversely affect an individual’s participation in employment, education or other CUNY activities.

Sexual violence is an umbrella term that includes: (1) sexual activity without affirmative consent, such as sexual assault, rape/attempted rape, and forcible touching/fondling; (2) dating, domestic and intimate partner violence; (3) stalking/cyberstalking (“stalking”) as defined in this policy.”
Some of the proposed changes to the Board’s bylaws that generally aim to provide complainants with the same opportunities as respondents in cases involving the CUNY Policy on Sexual Misconduct are as follows (the authors have replaced the gendered pronouns he and she found in the proposed changes with the gender neutral their):

  • Both the complainant and respondent can request an advisor to accompany them throughout the proceedings.
    If the respondent withdraws from the university before the hearing concludes, their transcript will read “withdrew with conduct charges pending.” If the respondent does not appear, notification of the findings will be placed in their records if the proceedings continue in absentia.
  • The respondent can admit to charges and accept the penalty. The complainant must be notified and may appeal. (This section is completely new).
  • No open hearings will be held in cases involving “allegations of sexual assault, stalking, or other forms of sexual violence.”
    The prior mental or sexual history of both the complainant and respondent is not admissible (except between the parties). Prior findings of violence or sexual assault are admissible during the penalty stage of the hearing, and either party can make an impact statement. (This section is completely new).
  • In general, it becomes more difficult for a respondent to remove notations of code of conduct violations from their transcripts. Acts which are deemed reportable by the Clery Act will remain on transcripts.

While this bill and the proposed Board changes are an improvement in helping survivors, they still do not go far enough in changing the climate that make gender-based harassment, stalking, sexual harassment, assault, and rape possible in the first place. Additionally, the study found that students identifying as transgender, genderqueer, or non-conforming reported the highest rates of sexual assault and misconduct. This raises awareness that while the proposed changes and new focus on legislation are certainly positive, more can be done to address and acknowledge the violence that transgender and non-gender conforming people face on campus.

The governor and Board of Trustees might think a legal response is adequate. But gender harassment and sexual violence are rooted in patriarchy, misogyny, and homo and transphobia. You cannot simply legislate that away. It is only due to the tireless efforts of on-campus activists and organizations to draw attention to the pervasive nature of the problem, of the survivors who testify despite repercussions, and of the researchers who repeatedly demonstrate that on-campus violence is real that rape culture and gender-based harassment are being recognized. And these efforts must continue.

We know how easily sexual assault, rape, and gender-based harassment go underreported and thus disregarded—or, like the recent case of the Owen Labrie rape trial, how easily perpetrators can twist the story to create “reasonable” doubt. As officers of the Doctoral Student Council (DSC), we aim to raise awareness of these proposed bylaw changes for the Graduate Center community as both students and faculty within the CUNY system. We hope to make this information as accessible as possible so that it can be shared in our classrooms to publicize the available resources, and also to open up a discussion about how to make campuses free of sexual and gender-based harassment a real possibility.

For more information:
The on campus Title IX coordinator at the Graduate Center is Edith Rivera, who can be reached at erivera@gc.cuny.edu or 212-817-7410.

And from the NYC government website: “To report a sexual assault on a New York college campus to the State Police, call the dedicated 24-hour hotline at 1-844-845-7269. In an emergency, call 911.

For confidential resources, call the New York State Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline at 1-800-942-6906. In New York City, call 1-800-621-HOPE (4673) or dial 311.”

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