SAFER began as a student organization at Columbia University in 1999 with the goal of reforming the University’s sexual assault policy. The policy was scheduled for review that academic year by the University Senate, the University’s decision-making body. As is still the case on countless campuses nationwide, Columbia’s policy lacked numerous key provisions to ensure appropriate and responsible handling of campus sexual violence, including prevention and education initiatives; accurate and accountable collection of statistics; and clear, transparent disciplinary procedures with oversight mechanisms to ensure due process for all parties.
Over a year-long period, SAFER organized a broad-based, campus-wide student campaign in support of specific reform measures. Plastering the campus with thousands of fliers, drawing on student media, and building support across diverse student organizations as well as among faculty and staff, SAFER worked to position sexual assault policy reform as the central issue on campus that year. When initial actions—including numerous meetings and public forums with administrators as well as a widely-signed petition that was publicly presented to the University president—were met with resistance, SAFER organized several rallies and demonstrations that were attended by hundreds of students and covered by a range of media outlets. Red tape, used by SAFER to symbolize bureaucratic attempts to thwart reform, covered student backpacks and notebooks. A coalition of student anti-violence organizations drafted a model policy for Columbia, and petitioned University Senate members to adopt it. Ultimately, the Senate passed a much-improved policy, incorporating many key student proposals. As a result of the campaign, Columbia today has an office devoted to sexual assault prevention and education, with a staff person committed to spearheading these programs and overseeing disciplinary procedures. Campus sexual violence programming is further overseen by a set of committees devoted to improving the University’s response to sexual assault.
Soon after the success at Columbia, which received much local and national press attention, SAFER members began receiving e-mails and phone calls from students and staff at colleges across the country, asking for advice and guidance on how to build a campaign to improve sexual assault policies on their campuses. Prompted by the ever-increasing volume of requests for assistance, several SAFER student members created an organization devoted to this task: SAFER was incorporated as a student and recent graduate-led 501©(3) non-profit organization in 2000 and offered its first organizing training for students in 2001. In 2002, SAFER opened its first office in donated space.
In 2003, Ashley Burczak, one of the founding members of SAFER at Columbia, received the Echoing Green fellowship to work on SAFER full-time. This allowed SAFER to recruit and train 12 Organizing Trainers from across the country to conduct SAFER Weekend Organizing Trainings and Teach-Ins, expanding the organization’s ability to reach students.
In 2006, SAFER hired Margaret Mikkelsen as Executive Director to build SAFER’s infrastructure and improve sustainability. Under her leadership, SAFER launched its College Sexual Assault Policies Database. The database is both a resource for students looking for ideas from other colleges’ policies and a means to begin to assess the state of policies across the nation.
In 2009, SAFER launched its most ambitious effort yet to meet the needs of college students who want to make change on their campuses. With a generous grant from V-Day, SAFER transformed its accumulated resources for students into an accessible, engaging Student Organizing Library. Simultaneously, SAFER launched a new version of the College Sexual Assault Policy Database that assisted students in completing their own analysis of their school’s policies. In the same year, to address funding difficulties stemming from the economic crisis and devote more resources to programming, SAFER restructured as a volunteer-run collective, led by the Board of Directors. It is this volunteer collective that made the online expansion possible, and we welcome new volunteers to join us!