The week before school starts is never a quiet time at Stern. While upperclassmen may be enjoying one final beach barbecue or jetting back from some far-off volunteering mission, various student leaders, Resident Advisors (RAs), and, most notably, legions of first-time-on-campus students stream into the school buildings and dorm rooms to set up shop. Resident Advisors spend a few days participating in various training and orientation activities to help prepare them for their jobs and new students enjoy a range of introductory speeches and activities to help facilitate an easy transition into the college lifestyle. This year, both orientations featured a new element: both RAs and new students were required to take an online course designed to raise awareness about harassment policies and tools for prevention.
Student employees and new students were required to complete an online course – about 45 minutes to 1 hour long – reviewing the definition of harassment, reporting policies, and their rights to work and learn in a non-hostile environment. At the end of the exam, students were prompted to print out a certificate indicating completion of the course. The course, though not long, is comprehensive and urges those who feel they are being harassed to either request that the perpetrator stop or to report the incident(s). Those who completed the course received the message that any behavior, statement, or action that is derogatory, whether or not the perpetrator intended it to be, should be reported in order that it can be appropriately investigated.
Esther Sasson, Assistant General Counsel & University Director of Compliance for Yeshiva University, discussed the impetus behind the new requirement. Frankly, she explains, this is not the first time the University has tackled this “important issue.” Although the University has distributed pamphlets and information booklets on preventing sexual harassment and has established a number of anti-harassment policies, Sasson notes, the administration “have been looking at ways to do more about educating students about this important subject.” Indeed, while a quick look around the YU website reveals a twelve page document detailing the University’s “Harassment Policy and Complaint Procedures for Students,” it is doubtful that most YU students chance upon the PDF. Even if they happen to notice it, it seems unlikely that most students would take the time to sift through the form, much of it in legalese.
This year, Sasson continues, the University has taken “more proactive preventive measures,” in light of recent guidance release by the Office for Civil Righs of the US Department of Education regarding compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX, Sasson explains, “generally bans sex discrimination in schools,” and the new information released by the government is designed to help universities expand their involvement in preventing sexual harassment. Guided by both the US Department of Education’s guidelines and the materials used at other universities, Sasson continues, YU has “introduced an e-learning workshop for first year students [the online course discussed above] and revised our Harassment Policy and Complaint Procedures for both students and employees.” While Sasson has had a role in the procedures, she adds that Renee Coker, the University’s Title IX Coordinator, has been tasked with taking “an active role in ensuring our compliance efforts.”
Although the University may have revamped their policies and materials regarding sexual harassment, a number of new students and RAs did not seem to take particular notice. The students were asked to take the online course during their own time, an honor system for a task which may not prove compelling enough for many to get around to, at least during the first few weeks of school. Aimee Rubesteen, a senior and returning RA, commented that while some fellow advisors did not take the exam very seriously, she believes that it addresses “an important element” of a job that involves “working closely with students in housing, especially in light of the numerous tragedies on college campuses that are rooted in bullying.” First year RA and junior Ayelet Bersson agrees, remarking “as an employee in the Yeshiva University system, it was an important message to hear,” though she felt that the website “was frustratingly slow and time-consuming in explaining the danger of harassment in a workplace.”
Technical frustrations and lighthearted student reactions aside, the University this year has taken more practical steps towards combating a very serious issue. While it may be up to many students to follow up on the directions and guidelines offered by the University, the axiom “knowledge is power” rings true. As students living, many for the first time, in a city with over eight million residents and in a college environment surrounded by dozens of new people, it is important that they are armed with the tools to protect themselves.