Part of the student activism surrounding sexual assault on campus this semester has focused on increasing anonymity and extending hours at the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center, but administrators say that there aren't any changes currently in the works.
The center is located in 105 Hewitt Hall, a residence hall on Barnard's campus, and staffed primarily by student volunteers from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays. La'Shawn Rivera, the center's director, oversees the RC/AVS along with a senior programming adviser who works with the peer educators and advisers and two part-time advisers who are trained psychologists and trauma specialists.
Earlier this semester, students spoke to Spectator about their concerns with the center. Since the center is located in a Barnard dorm, Columbia students have to present their ID and explain where they're going to the desk attendant on duty, raising questions about how confidential the center is for survivors. Administrators declined to comment for that story.
In interviews on Thursday, administrators said that there aren't any plans to change the access policy right now.
"It's not an easy fix," said Samuel Seward, associate vice president and medical director of Columbia Health.
Still, Rivera said that they are in constant conversations with students and relevant Barnard administrators.
"It's very complicated, and there's a lot that goes into this, but we are open to taking to students' input and working with the administration at Barnard and doing what we can to address it," Rivera said.
Amy Zavadil, Barnard's Title IX coordinator, said that the greatest challenge was addressing the security concerns that would come with changing access to the center.
"That is the challenge of it—we've got administrative offices in a residence hall and we have to balance the totality of safety and security for access to the building as a whole," Zavadil said. "And we hear you that there is a difference."
Ultimately, the administrators said that having a screening process in place was important to ensure the security of the student volunteers and survivors.
"For the work that we do it is important that we're in a setting where this is some kind of screening or process," Rivera said. "We do have students who are concerned with other students having access to the Rape Crisis Center for their own safety."
"My first thought is to the safety of our volunteers," Seward said. "They are there alone sometimes, during off-hours, by themselves in those offices In my role I feel like I would have to know that they're going to be safe. They're giving up themselves and their time and many of them give literally tens and hundreds of hours in a year to us, and they have to be safe."
Zavadil and Rivera said that they tell students that they don't have to specifically reveal the purpose of their visit to the center to the guards.
"There are a number of options that a student is provided with," Zavadil said. "They can indicate they're going to 105 Hewitt, they can indicate they're going to the RC/AVSC, they can indicate they're going to" Sexual Violence Response.
"Our training with the access attendants is if any student who has an ID, a Columbia University ID, says any of these things, you are to sign them in and let them go. No further questions." Zavadil said.
Additionally, both Zavadil and Rivera maintain that the guards don't necessarily assume that students are going to visit the center because they've been sexually assaulted, given the number of student volunteers who work there.
"When La'Shawn and I train the access attendants, we talk about the range of services that the office provides so they're understanding is that people go to her office for a lot of different reasons," Zavadil said. "I don't know it's the direct connection that people are making."
Rivera said that students could be coming to the center "for a variety of reasons—students are coming in to plan events, or to meet with us to consult and get technical support around an activity, or for educational programs."
Back in February, when the Spectator story about the center was first published, students working on the issue said that administrators gave them the same response, but that they didn't feel this made the situation any better.
"Effectively, they have to publicly out themselves as survivors to a complete stranger, which can be really uncomfortable and a huge deterrent to getting help," Abby Porter, CC '17 and a Columbia College Student Council representative working on the issue, said last month. "The response from the administration has been that instead of saying, 'I'm going to the Rape Crisis Center,' they can say something like, 'I have a health appointment,' but any code you create still presents the same issues."
Another issue that has raised concerns for students is that the center is only open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and isn't open at all during the New Student Orientation Program.
Administrators said a large part of the problem is that there's only twelve students to staff the center and rotate shifts, including the 24/7 help line that the center provides.
"You walk into this conversation and you ask, wouldn't a trained professional be better?" Seward said. "Actually, what we know from lots of students frequently the people they most want to talk to are their friends and colleagues."
"Our peer advocacy program is staffed by student volunteers, so we're constantly looking to engage more students in the work, as that allows us to be open more," Rivera said.
While extending the center's hours isn't an option at this point, administrators said that they are working towards keeping the center open for NSOP this summer.
"It is really difficult to staff a volunteer program during the summer periods, so the student volunteers want to take a break and for some of them, they're starting a study abroad program," Rivera said.
Rivera said that the center was open last summer, except during NSOP because the peer advisers were working to support the orientation programming.
"So what we have is someone available by cell phone and then we speak with that person or send a peer advocate to meet with them," Rivera said, adding that they also direct students to other organizations near campus during orientation.
"So we're definitely working on that and figuring out when we can staff the office and ensure that there are volunteers working at the center during" NSOP, Rivera said.
Samantha Cooney contributed reporting.
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