IMG_1184Nelson Hua / Morningside Muckraker

Every CLS student is now required to participate in the university-wide sexual respect initiative entitled “Sexual Respect & Community Citizenship,” as was announced by Dean Lester’s email earlier this month.

In order to participate in the initiative, students must formally register and complete one of the options via the CourseWorks portal. In addition to the law school-specific program components, CLS students will have access to all of the University’s resources.

Sexual respect is hardly a new subject for schools receiving federal funding, especially as the law requires such educational institutions to provide assistance to victims of sexual assault, and to implement preventive measures to create an environment where students would feel more comfortable.

Yet, it is rare for a university to mandate all students to complete such programs as part of the curriculum.

“It’s somewhat unique for a university to require this level of participation from this many people,” said Dean of Student Services Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin. “What we hope is that by requiring the student community to complete the program within the next few weeks, the program will generate conversation among students on a topic that is difficult to discuss.”

The initiative addresses an issue that lies at the cross section of law, regulation, and social justice, where the University is implementing policies to craft the changes it wants to see in its community. This is a task for which law students are uniquely equipped, as highlighted by Dean Lester in her email, stating, “[a]s law students and lawyers, we carry a special obligation to actively address issues of society and justice. It is incumbent upon us to be leaders in those conversations.”

CLS students have been playing an active role in the initiative. In addition to contributing to the development of the program since its planning stage, some CLS students have been serving as the program’s peer educators by drawing from their extensive training from their undergraduate years or prior work experience.

“The Sexual Respect Initiative presents a much-needed opportunity for students at CLS to interface with these important issues in a deliberate and reflective manner,” said Catherine Djang, a 2L who has been actively involved in the initiative’s program development. “I believe this will not only strengthen our community, but also be a boon to our professional development as we engage with questions of how law and policy address rape, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual misconduct.”

Above all, the program is innovative in that it offers a variety of ways through which students can partake in the initiative. “We know that this can be a difficult conversation to have, and we wanted to respect and accommodate the diversity of preferences that exist when it comes to expressing opinions,” said Dean Greenberg-Kobrin.

Students may choose to complete the requirement individually, or may choose to do so in a group setting by participating in workshops. For instance, a student can watch videos related to the topic online and submit a short reflection paper (300-600 words), or participate in pre-scheduled training workshops or ones hosted by existing student organizations.

Notably different from the traditional format of such training programs is the Arts Option, which enables students to express concepts such as sex, respect, consent, accepting help, ownership of the body, bystander, etc., through an art submission. Submissions may fall into almost any category of art, including videos, visual art, poetry, drama, dance, music, and performance art.

This perhaps is a recognition of the impact of the “Carry that Weight” mattress performance, where undergraduate Emma Sulkowicz walks around Columbia University with a 50lb-mattress in an attempt to raise awareness of campus sexual assault issues. The existence of the Arts Option could provide an opportunity for artistically inclined students to creatively express themselves when confronted with emotions that may be hard to describe in words.

Though appreciative of the importance of the initiative, some students were bewildered by the fast-approaching deadline. “I appreciate the effort to raise awareness about the issue, but the timing does seem a bit rushed, especially given that everybody is required to do it,” commented a 2L student who asked to remain anonymous.

Despite concerns regarding its initial execution, it is undeniable that the initiative appears to have a lot of potential. Djang noted that “this is only one small step forward,” but that she is “excited at the prospect of bringing even greater social change to the Law School and University in the near future.”

In a similar vein of optimism, Professor Suzanne Goldberg quoted Voltaire—that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good—while writing a guest blog post in Spectrum, “while we aspire to perfection, we need to take steps to get there. And if we wait to act until we have a masterpiece in hand, we will miss many opportunities to achieve good with what we have been able to do.”

“It’s awesome that we’re talking about this,” said Dean Greenberg-Kobrin. “Law school students are good at talking about difficult subjects, and this is exactly the kind of issue where lawyers and law students can show leadership.”