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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Columbia students fight for justice over sexual assault

Published: September 5, 2014
Section: News

With the list of colleges and universities under federal investigations for Title IX violations continues to grow, more and more students are feeling mistreated by their schools and administrations. At Columbia University last year, students filed complaints with the federal government over the mishandling of sexual assault charges.

According to a New York Times article, “Twenty-three students signed on to three separate complaints, each alleging violations of a different federal law, against Columbia and the affiliated Barnard College, which were filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.”

Students at Columbia wanted to see more access to information on the rape crisis response process and data on campus assault prevalence. Months later, after much negotiation between administrators and students, the university released a flowchart describing the kinds of resources that survivors were entitled to. However, the flow chart was not the same as it had been during negotiations, students noted, and crucial information had been cut.

In response, one student that had been involved in the negotiations sent an email to administrators requesting that in the future, students be more involved in the final decision-making process. The Nation, a weekly magazine, published part of the email with an article about the situation.

“I would request that in the future we could have direct contact with whoever makes the decision on what information can be included or excluded. I am sure that you expressed to them which pieces of information we felt most strongly about including, but perhaps we might be able to make a stronger case for ourselves if we can communicate with them directly,” part of the email read.

While the email is professional and earnest in its tone, the Title IX compliance officer who received it responded with a different tone. In an email meant for her colleague, Virginia Ryan accidentally wrote back to the student, “Wow again. Direct contact with decision makers, not just us. Anything else?!”

To many, this email embodies the disregard for students that they feel the administration of Columbia University holds. This August, the university released its revised Gender-Based Misconduct Policy. Again, students were disappointed, believing that it did not address their concerns.

In an open letter to administrators in response to the revised policy, students wrote: “Essential student concerns have not been meaningfully addressed in the new policy. For example, this policy does not guarantee accommodations like housing and academic changes for survivors, it does not establish clear or useful sanctioning guidelines, it does not sufficiently improve the training for staff members who interact with survivors, and it leaves the appeals process in the hands of Deans with no expertise, inadequate training and a clear bias. Students have been raising these concerns and many others for months, yet this policy does nothing to address them.”

The letter was written by the various activist groups from Columbia and Barnard, including No Red Tape Columbia, The Coalition Against Sexual Violence, Columbia Alumni Allied Against Sexual Assault, Title IX Team and Take Back The Night of Barnard College at Columbia University. The letter continued to call on the president’s office to “meet with student survivors and organizers immediately, openly and regularly to discuss ways to reform Columbia’s policies and procedures for responding to sexual assault.”

All around Columbia University Campus, the disdain is palpable for the lack of action being taken. Emma Sulkowicz is a senior at Columbia, majoring in visual arts, who has taken action in hand with her senior thesis—an endurance performance art piece titled “Mattress Performance” or “Carry that Weight.”

“I was raped in my own dorm bed, and since then, that space has become fraught for me, and I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then,” Sulkowicz said to The Columbia Daily Spectator. Sulkowicz plans to carry the mattress around with her everywhere until her alleged rapist is expelled.

In their letter, the activist groups urged other students to review the revised policy and provided a survey for them to voice their concerns. “When will Columbia University make ending sexual violence on campus a top priority?” They asked, “What must we do to make our voices heard?”

Columbia is just one of many colleges and universities dealing with problems in the handling of sexual assault cases. As of Aug. 8, 76 schools were under federal investigation for possible violations of Title IX. However, that list continues to grow. Brandeis University is also now known to be under investigation for possible violations.