Columbia University Ranking High in Sexual Assault Denial, Students Say #Justice4Emma


Alissa Kokkins (The Anti-Media)
September 8, 2014

Last Tuesday, news and images of Columbia University visual art major, Emma Sulkowicz, dragging a dorm mattress around campus as part of her senior performance art project “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight,” exploded on the Internet and went viral. Emma says the mattress she carries is identical to the one she was raped on in her Columbia dorm room the first day of her sophomore year. An endurance art piece, Emma will lug the mattress everywhere she goes until her graduation day or the serial sex offender that she says raped her, is expelled from Columbia. Dragging the mattress is only a portion of Emma’s performance which you can hear about from Emma herself:

Emma’s pursuit of justice did not begin in the public eye. It began with the cloak of public anonymity, after Emma encountered another woman who shared an account of being raped by the same individual. Having faith in Columbia University’s integrity, both women turned to their school to pursue individual cases against their accused rapist. In an article published in The Blue and White, Emma, then known by the pseudonym “Sara” shared why she chose to take the matter to Columbia University not NYPD:

I heard so many horrible stories about how badly the police handle cases like these. Columbia also advertises its resources so much that I thought they would really listen to me. I thought I would be taken care of.

After reporting the incidents to University officials, Emma endured a sloppy seven month judicial hearing process that resulted in the alleged serial sexual offender being found “not responsible” in both cases by the school’s disciplinary panel. Soon after their cases closed, another woman filed a complaint against the same man. This time, the school found the accused serial offender “responsible” for sexual assault. However, he successfully appealed the school’s decision, resuming his role as a freshman program coordinator.  Soon, the man who makes Emma relive rape trauma simply being present in her space, was back on campus where three women had accused him of sexual assault.

In situations where the University becomes aware of a pattern of behavior by one or more respondents, the University will take appropriate action in an attempt to protect the University community. — Columbia University, “Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students

Despite this statement in Columbia University’s Gender-Based Misconduct Policy for Students, the University did not consider prior complaints against the accused serial sex offender as a pattern of behavior. Prior complaints filed against him were not to be considered in the investigation for the new case or in any other cases to this day due to University policies.

via Columbia's "Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students"
via Columbia’s “Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students”

After all three accusers were denied action from the University, a seemingly defunct investigative process and internal procedure for handling sexual assault on campus began unraveling. Some of which included: University “specialists” not using video or audio equipment, but writing by hand and abbreviating accounts of sexual assault at Columbia; traumatized accusers having to repeatedly retell accounts of rape/sexual assault, due to the University’s poor documentation process and revolving members of the school’s disciplinary board; the disciplinary board’s burden of proof relying on whether the offense was “more likely than not” committed; independent prior complaints against alleged sex offenders found “not responsible” not being considered when new complaints are filed; and “specialists” on Columbia University’s hearing panel repeatedly asking questions such as:

Did he use lubrication? I don’t understand how it’s possible to have anal sex without using lubrication first.” – Specialist on Columbia University’s Judicial Hearing Panel re: rape

Rape is unquestioningly always violent. Having any rape survivor repeatedly address logistics as to how one could possibly be raped without the courtesy of lube, seems indicative of a more alarming trend: Columbia administrators overseeing sexual assault cases on campus being not only ignorant, but also perpetrators of rape culture. Soon after enduring Columbia’s torturous process and witnessing the accusations of all three women dismissed, Emma came forward to speak up as one of Columbia’s many anonymous rape survivors being denied justice.

Columbia: Reputation before representation?

Accusations that Columbia mishandles, denies, neglects and poorly approaches the issue of sexual assault on its campuses is nothing new for the ivy tower. Barnard College Crime StatisticsFrom 1998-2000, students and student groups at the University (such as SAFER) protested and organized huge Take Back the Night marches demanding the university strengthen their approach to sexual assault. Both protesters of yesteryear and today accuse the University’s administration of intentionally underreporting sexual assaults on Columbia’s campuses to make the school look attractive and rank high in publications such as U.S. News and World Report. Crime statistics can be a deciding factor for prospective students, which some Columbia students say are being underplayed by the University’s administration to attract students at the expense of student safety. As part of her art performance, Emma conveys that when considering a school, low reporting of rapes/sexual violence should be a red flag not an invitation. Indicating that low numbers should be taken as a sign that school officials may be sweeping rape and sexual assault on campus under the rug.

Ongoing concerns regarding sexual assault at Columbia have been brought to the attention of the administration through various campaigns over the past sixteen years. Like déjà vu, last year, Columbia University saw the return of red tape on school idols, property, and students which had first appeared on the campuses 16 years ago. The red tape was used then and now to signify bureaucracy at Columbia stifling justice for sexual assault survivors. The latest iteration of red tape resistance was attributed to anti-rape student group No Red Tape (@NoRedTapeColumbia). The group demanded the university address: “concerns regarding the flawed policies and inadequate resources for preventing and addressing sexual assault on campus.” They also demanded Columbia host a Town Hall where individual student voices could be heard with school decision makers present. After a series of red tape revolts, the school granted the students a Town Hall on March 13 at 5:00pm. A time slot that was during midterms and the night before students left for Spring Break.

Image: No Red Tape Columbia
Image: No Red Tape Columbia

Less than two months after the half-hearted Town Hall, 23 students from Columbia and Barnard filed a federal complaint accusing the University of violating Title II, Title IX, and the Clery Act. Weeks later, Columbia’s Faculty released a Letter Supporting Complaints Against Columbia’s Sexual Assault Policies. Soon after vigilante action at Columbia began as “Rapist Lists” appeared scrawled on campus bathroom walls bearing the names of four alleged rapists. The list included the names of three accused rapists the university found “responsible” and the name of an alleged serial rapist. Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan reported on the incidents describing those accused on the rapist lists as: “a musician, a prominent writer for a campus publication, and a varsity athlete.” The “prominent writer” worked for Columbia’s renown campus blog, Bwog. After being alerted by an anonymous tip, Bwog staff successfully requested the staffer immediately resign and released this statement on conflict of interest. University janitors reportedly took to cleaning the names off the walls almost as quickly as they went up. Vigilantes responded by instead distributing “rapist list” flyers around the campuses, leaving stacks in restroom stalls.

Columbia University Rapist List FlyerAccessibility to the school’s rape crisis center, is another issue being raised by students. The center is located on the Barnard campus, which Barnard students can access by using their ID’s to swipe in. However, the 6,000+ Columbia students must sign in and “state their intentions.” A policy that puts sexual assault survivors seeking help at the crisis center in the awkward position of questioning whether they must out themselves to campus security before speaking to trained staff at the center. After calling the school myself, I was extremely disturbed that the operator at Columbia University, an ivy league school that Forbes ranks #13 in the nation, did not know the meaning of “judicial issues” or “student justice” nor who oversees reported rapes on campus. In the end, the confused operator transferred me to the University General Council’s office, who had no idea where to field my call and directed me to the school’s website.

Amidst this all, student journalist Anna Bahr spent four months investigating the history of rape and sexual violence at Columbia University and Barnard College during academic years 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 After speaking with accusers and gaining access to secret recordings of internal meetings at Columbia on the issue, Bahr published a two part series titled: “Fallen Through the Cracks” An Examination of Sexual Assault at Columbia”. “Catherine” was one of 10 students who shared their accounts.  In 2009, Catherine says she was raped by her “Consent Educator,” a week before her classes began at Columbia. It was the first time she had sex, according to this detailed account.

To become a Consent 101 leader, Catherine’s alleged assailant had to attend a Columbia University workshop, complete with an interactive script, that outlined goals such as:

“First-years will learn verbal communication skills to help them participate in healthy consensual sexual activities. Additionally, they will learn about the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center and Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct.” — Columbia Health Sexual Violence Response: Consent Workshop

To become Consent Educators, students must be in good disciplinary and academic standing with their undergraduate college. Approximately 80 students are accepted as educators and must commit to three full days of training with Sexual Violence Response—with the bonus incentive of getting to move into their dorms a week early. The basic application vets potential leaders with innocuous questions such as, “Why are you interested in volunteering for [Sexual Violence Response]?” “What skills do you bring?” and “What do you believe contributes to sexual violence on campus?”

Columbia recently launched a new “Step Up!” campaign to educate students on the school’s various programs on consent, intervention and prevention. However, the school’s history raises serious doubts as to whether the University is capable of providing an adequate process for addressing sexual assault and rape culture on campus without first addressing its own internal operations and rape culture amongst Columbia administrators. With rape culture apparently alive and well in both the process and University staff, it perhaps is time the school reconsider its hierarchical process and really listen to what the Columbia community is requesting from their school. The exact opposite approach to this email exchange between Columbia University administrators that was leaked by The Nation: an approach to sexual assault that is reached via a collaborative exchange between the Columbia community and administration. Allowing the community to tackle this tough issues as just that, a community.

Columbia University Sexual Assault email
Art professors often say the best art comes from what an artist knows. It is shameful to see any school, let alone a respected ivy league institution such as Columbia University, offering rape denial as the most resounding mark of the college experience for any student. May Emma Sulkowicz’s brave performance leave a mark that once and for all spells justice for all survivors of sexual assault at Columbia.

For anyone in the New York area wishing to get involved, @NoRedTapeCU is holding a Stand w Survivors rally on Friday, Sept 12 @12pm at the Low Steps. More info here


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