May 2, 2019

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: A Call to Action After Sexual Assault Awareness Week

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Cornell is challenging in many ways that it should be — academically, professionally, socially — yet when a quarter of undergraduate women, 18 percent of TGQN* students and seven percent of undergraduate men are experiencing sexual assault after arriving on campus, these challenges are compounded to an unacceptable level.

This week concludes the fifth annual installment of Sexual Assault Awareness Week at Cornell. Throughout this week, we, the planning board of SAAW, have strived to bring members of the Cornell community together to discuss the impact of sexual violence on our campus and beyond. These conversations were meaningful, educational and supremely important.

There will always be a place for dialogue. Simply speaking about sexual violence is a step too few have taken, and an important one. But there is, now more than ever, a place and  need for action.

After diligently reflecting on the conversations and lessons learned from our week of events, we call the community to action by setting the following goals:

  • We must broaden the scope of the types of sexual violence we actively validate. Individuals coming forward about sexual assault should be believed and taken seriously. So too should those coming forward about dating violence, stalking and harassment. The perceived “seriousness” of the case should not temper our reactions of support or our tendency to assume credibility.
  • We must broaden the scope of the victims and survivors we believe. As a society, we rarely believe the experiences of victims and survivors of sexual violence, even in cases that fall within our narrow white, cisgender, heterosexual image of what sexual violence looks like. It is often even more rare for victims and survivors who identify as queer, people of color, those with disabilities and those from other socially marginalized communities to be believed. We must condition ourselves to believe rather than doubt all of those who come forward about their experiences with sexual violence.
  • We must continue to identify and rally against language and behavior that enables sexual violence. If we allow our peers, our friends and ourselves to casually joke about sexual assault, we both normalize the actions of perpetrators and undermine our authority to prevent future sexual violence. Objectification, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia all contribute to the victimization of individuals across every community on campus.

To Cornell’s administration, we call you to act on the following:

  • Secretary Devos of the Department of Education has proposed several changes to the rules governing Title IX cases on university campuses. We call on Cornell University officials to publicly announce their intention to maintain the current procedural rules in place on our campus, outlined on the Title IX website. Specifically, Cornell should publicly make a commitment to reject Devos’s calls for cross-examination as part of the Title IX adjudication process. This proposed measure only nominally increases due process and further silences victims and survivors.
  • We call on the University to both promote the services of the confidential victim advocates and hire additional staff members from diverse backgrounds. There are only two of these professional staff members serving a campus of nearly 22,000 students. How can we, in good faith, continue to advocate for survivors and victims and help them seek out support on campus when the number of professional employees who explicitly offer support are so severely outnumbered by students who need their services? The victim advocates provide a critical service. The University should commit to expanding it.
  • Leaders of student organizations are frequently made aware of incidents of sexual violence among their peers, and they often lack the knowledge to adequately address these situations with grace and nuance. The ‘required’ video for registered OrgSync leaders does little to effectively educate student leaders about how they can best support their peers. We call on the University to make a good faith effort to legitimately train student leaders to respond to, support and assist their fellow classmates in navigating the reporting process and the aftermath of violence.

Cornell University’s mission in part reads as follows: To “discover, preserve and disseminate knowledge, to educate the next generation of global citizens.” This pursuit of higher learning is fundamental to the purpose of this University, and we the undersigned believe that this goal is incompatible with the levels of sexual violence on our campus.

As the next generation of global citizens, we have an obligation to lead by changing our University’s culture that continues to produce the feeling amongst victims and survivors that their stories are not important.

Consider yourself aware of the problem. Now let’s act to develop solutions.

Lavanya Aprameya ’19, President Emeritus, Haven

Luke Bianco ’18, President Emeritus, Consent Ed

Marissa Block ’19, Student Assistant to the Dean of the Hotel School

Terence Burke ’21, Vice President of Member and Alumni Development, Cornell IFC

Clady Corona ’19, President Emeritus, First Generation Student Union

Gabrielle Dewhurst ’21, Track and Field/Cross Country

Sarah Edwards ’19, President Emeritus, BOSS Peer Mentorship Program

Madison Gamma ’22, Ambassador, Consent Ed

Tyler Henry ’20, Executive Vice President, Cornell IFC

Aditi Mohapatra ’19, Health and Wellness Committee

Kellie Ochs ’19, Intergroup Dialogue Project Facilitator

Renee Odom ’20, Co-President, Consent Ed

Sabrina Sugano ’19, President Emeritus, Consent Ed

*TGQN denotes the following gender identities: agender, androgyne, demigender, genderqueer or gender fluid, questioning or unsure, transgender man, transgender woman, and other gender identity.