This piece contains material about sexual assault policy that may be upsetting to some readers.
Here is an example of an email you should have received this year. In it, the University of Iowa alerts its students to a recent report of sexual violence on campus. The email alert is direct and simple. It includes a warning about the nature of its sensitive content, gives a brief and anonymous summary of a student's report of sexual assault, defines consent, and points students toward resources they might need to address a similar situation.
In this way, the "timely warning" takes a three-pronged approach to communicating about sexual violence. First, it provides support to students who have experienced trauma. Second, it directly affirms the notion that students who have given anything less than affirmative, enthusiastic consent, or who are intoxicated, have not given consent at all. Finally, it provides advice to prevent future assaults—for example, by asking students to intervene as active bystanders. The warning does not offer identifying information or details of the assault so as not to discourage students from reporting for fear of being outed or of retaliation.
Of course, the Columbia community is well-acquainted with timely warnings (or "security alerts") from Public Safety. Students get them several times per month—just not when the crime reported is sexual assault. In fact, the Clery Act specifically states that criminal acts such as a "string of larcenies" or a "snow closure" do not necessitate an "emergency response" alert from university administration. And yet, we receive emails detailing petty theft and are told when certain on-campus gates are closed during the snowy season. Schools including Swarthmore, Pomona, and University of Iowa, however, are sending out timely warnings for sexual violence. It is time Columbia joins them.
The Clery Act requires universities to circulate timely alerts when any crime occurs that represents an ongoing or repeated threat to students and employees (including sex offenses, dating violence, harassment, hate crimes, and stalking). It requires Columbia to issue the alert as soon as it is reported to Public Safety or the New York Police Department. While we do not look to the law as the sole legitimate source of authority, we do recognize the realities of institutional power. An institution like Columbia will respond to the demands of the state, though it may not respond to those of its students.
The Clery Act states plainly the terms upon which timely warnings should be issued: "Timely warnings are triggered by crimes that have already occurred but represent an ongoing threat." A recent report by the White House Council on Women and Girls found that, of the 7 percent of college-age men who admit to sexual assault, 63 percent have committed multiple offenses, averaging six each. That evidence alone is sufficient to demonstrate an "ongoing threat" to students on campus.
But Columbia has more than just a legal obligation to send these warnings. Of the nine security alerts we have received this year, every single one indicated men of color as the suspects, and most were nonviolent crimes. By providing timely warnings for these crimes and not for instances of sexual violence perpetrated by its own students, Columbia demonstrates the kind of crimes it takes seriously and whom it considers dangerous. Columbia literally creates an image of a criminal through its security alerts: a man of color, a non-affiliate of the University, who is committing minor crimes. This image of a criminal is wholly unrepresentative of crime and violence in our community, including sexual assault. By failing to provide these timely warnings, Columbia perpetuates deeply troubling institutional racism and shows a disturbing disregard for sexual violence and student safety.
Issuing timely warnings for sexual violence will also help regularly remind students of the resources available to them on campus. As students are well aware, such resources are often listed on badly designed websites, are worded in clinical language, and can be confusing to identify and locate. Listing support services in the security alerts will make these resources more accessible and better-utilized.
As survivors and allies ourselves, we want to acknowledge that receiving regular timely warnings could make students who have experienced sexual or intimate partner violence feel unsafe. It is a concern we take seriously and hope that the administration will too. We also recognize that survivors experience sexual violence and seek healing and justice in very different ways, and we do not claim to speak for all survivors. While we can't offer a perfect solution to these issues and don't believe that ending violence in our community can be achieved through timely warnings alone, we urge Public Safety and the administration to engage directly with diverse student voices to determine the safest and most supportive way to implement these warnings, comply with federal law, and challenge both a global and campus culture that enables and excuses sexual violence.
Sexual violence happens at Columbia. Its pervasiveness must become common knowledge. Students need to know more about all of the counseling and mental health resources on campus. Students need to know where they can report their assaults if they so choose. Students need to challenge racist constructions of violence and crime in our community. Students need to push back on a culture and systemic response that silences survivors and covers up their experiences. Timely warnings can help us do all of this.
The authors of this op-ed have been granted anonymity because they are members of No Red Tape Columbia, an anonymous organization working to end sexual violence and rape culture at Columbia.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.