Tonight is the annual Take Back the Night march, rally, and speak-out to raise awareness about gender-based violence at Columbia and create a community of support for survivors. The speak-out part of the night serves a very particular and necessary function in bringing these goals to fruition, creating an anonymous and protected space for survivors who wish to come forward about their experiences.
Columbia’s mandatory reporting policy requires that University employees file incident reports if they ever hear a student express that he or she has been the victim of sexual violence. This specific policy is grounded in the federal Title IX policy, though not explicity required by it. Officials classified as mandatory reporters include staff, faculty, and students who serve as resident advisers. If this policy is followed without exception, every RA in attendance at Take Back the Night must file a report for any student recounting a sexual assault whose voice or the details of such they recognize, despite the consciously constructed anonymity the speak-out is supposed to provide and protect. This week, some Graduate Hall Directors explicitly reminded some resident advisers in both upperclassman and first-year dorms that the mandatory reporting policy applies at Take Back the Night, encouraging RAs who are uncomfortable with the implications not to participate.
On Tuesday, representatives from Columbia’s Take Back the Night published an op-ed encouraging University officials to whom the mandatory reporting policy applies not to attend tonight. While this would protect the anonymity of those speaking who could be recognized, it also prevents fellow students and survivors from benefiting from the empowerment and support that is at the heart of Take Back the Night.
In order to remain as inclusive as possible while still protecting survivors, Take Back the Night has instituted a new policy allowing those who wish to speak the opportunity to write their stories down for a member of the organization to read, thus keeping the survivor’s actual voice disguised. While a welcome and creative solution to some of the potential reporting problems that RAs face, RAs who wish to speak about their own experiences of sexual assault are put in an impossible situation—they must choose between violating the privacy and consent of other survivors and keeping their own stories untold. Meanwhile, RAs who simply want to support their peers are still at risk of hearing stories they must report.
Instead of asking RAs to refrain from participating in the events tonight, we call for an act of targeted civil disobedience. Resident advisers exercise their discretion about the applicability or inapplicability of University policies in many other situations, and Take Back the Night should certainly be such a time. All students—resident advisers or not—should be able to attend and actively participate in the speak-out if they so choose. The space created by Take Back the Night should be available to all who wish to reclaim it. In this particular instance, we urge RAs who wish to participate to do exactly that and maintain the anonymity of the speak-out. If asked about their attendance, resident advisers can simply state that none of the voices or stories they heard were recognizable. When a policy doesn’t embody the values it’s supposed to protect, sometimes it’s worth breaking.
Ryan Cho and Yasmin Gagne recused themselves from this editorial because they are resident advisers.
To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.