U.S. News

01.31.14

Columbia Announces Changes To School Sex Assault Policy

The New York Ivy has become the latest in a string of schools to be accused of sweeping charges of sexual assault under the rug.

Only days after Obama announced the formation of a federal task force on sexual assault, three students have alleged that Columbia University may have mishandled repeated accusations of rape against a former athlete. According to a story by the Blue and White, a student publication, three women separately brought charges of sexual violence against the same student. One woman reportedly never got a hearing, while a second saw her case drag out for seven months as her alleged rapist delayed his hearing due to “academic conflicts,” according to the Blue and White. Columbia’s official policy on gender-based and sexual misconduct (PDF) states that the school will attempt to conclude all sexual assault cases within 60 days.

One of the women, speaking under the pseudonym Sara, told a reporter for the Blue and White that the alleged rapist was a friend with whom she’d had consensual sex before. One night, after drinking at a party, she said he followed her back to her room and quickly grew aggressive. Sara told the Blue and White that her assailant, “Tom,” “grabbed her wrists and pinned her arms behind her head. She said that he pushed her legs against her chest and forcefully penetrated her anus…Sara said she began to struggle, screaming at him to stop, yelling at him to get off of her. He didn’t stop,” according the Blue and White. When Sara took her case before a panel of faculty members, she said she found them combative and insensitive. “Did he use lubrication? I don’t understand how it’s possible to have anal sex without using lubrication first,” one asked, according to the Blue and White report. Tom, whom the Blue and White says did not respond to requests for comment, was found “not responsible” for the allegations this past November, according to the Blue and White.

Another alleged victim reportedly dated Tom for more than a year and later reported behavior that she claimed included his forcibly pinning her arms against the mattress during sex. According to the Blue and White article, it took her months to recognize that she had experienced what she came to believe was “intimate partner violence.” When she finally reported her abuse to Columbia, she said, the school’s Title IX investigators rushed to complete her case before the summer vacation, according to the Blue and White report. But when she asked them to wait until the fall, feeling too emotionally exhausted to represent herself well, according to the Blue and White, she said the school closed its investigation without giving her a hearing and found that no sufficient information indicated that a violation of the gender-based misconduct policy had occurred.

A third student told the Blue and White that she was able to fend off Tom’s advances, and wrote them off as “creepy, drunken aggression.” But when she learned that her attacker was a respondent in another sexual assault case, she decided to come forward, concerned for the safety of her fellow students. She won her case and Tom was put on disciplinary probation—until he appealed the decision and the charges were dismissed by the university. And in a cruel twist, according to the Blue and White, Columbia mistakenly sent her the letter of exoneration meant for her attacker.

In a statement released Wednesday morning, university president Lee Bollinger stated his commitment to changing the school’s policy on sexual assault in response to student demands for greater transparency.

The bare outline of the three women’s stories was reported by the New York Post last month, but Friday’s article marks the first time that the details of Columbia’s alleged handling of the cases have been reported.

Columbia’s office of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct declined a request from The Daily Beast to comment on the allegations, but in a statement released Wednesday morning, university president Lee Bollinger stated his commitment to changing the school’s policy on sexual assault in response to student demands for greater transparency.

“Gender-based misconduct and sexual assault have no place in our community.  Period,” the statement began. It went on to promise the release of aggregated anonymous data related to sexual assault as well as other measures, including a town hall meeting in which students will be able to voice their concerns. Bollinger did not specify the nature of the data that would be released, but stated that it would exceed the requirements of the Clery Act, which requires schools to report statistics on crime on and around their campuses.

The deans of Columbia’s undergraduate college, its engineering school, its school of continuing education and Barnard College reiterated Bollinger’s statement in a letter to the student body in Thursday morning. “As undergraduate deans, we are deeply committed to maintaining a campus environment that is safe for every member of our community,” they wrote. “We thank you for bringing your concerns to us and for your willingness to partner with us to address this challenge collectively.” 

President Bollinger’s concessions echo demands made in an open letter (PDF) by 29 members of the University Senate, a university legislative body that includes faculty, students, and administrative staff.

Marc Heinrich, a Columbia sophomore and one of the students who drafted the letter, thinks that the release of data on sexual assault is an important step. “What needs to be done is to restore confidence in the system,” he told The Daily Beast. “I think the best way to go about doing that is to release aggregate anonymous data so that we can see whether or not there have to be reforms made and where they are specifically that they should be.”

Student groups have been calling for reform since this fall, when the Columbia University Democrats began circulating a petition asking the school to bring transparency to its treatment of sexual assault. And last week, members of the Title IX Team, an activist group that seeks to raise awareness of issues of sexual assault on campuses, wrote an open letter to President Bollinger calling for him to speak out to address student concerns about the issue.

The student reaction to the Blue and White article was immediate. “I have received many emails since my first article was published, from alumni, from current students who have had similarly unsatisfying experiences with Columbia’s sexual assault policy and disciplinary hearing system,” Anna Bahr, the student journalist who broke the story, told The Daily Beast.

Although Darializa Avila-Chevalier, a member of the Title IX Team, did not know about the allegations outlined in the Blue and White article when the group published its call to Bollinger, she was not surprised by the article’s accusations.

“It was angering and disappointing, but I wasn’t surprised. The way that issues of sexual violence are handled, not just in the universities in this country but nationwide, have kind of made it so that these issues don’t surprise me any more,” Avila-Chevalier told The Daily Beast. “It surprised me a little more in the fact that it was coming from an institution as great [in other ways] as Columbia, but it wasn’t anything too far off.”  

President Bollinger’s statement comes at a time when a number of colleges around the country have come under fire for trying to suppress allegations of sexual assault. Students at Swarthmore, Occidental College, and Amherst, among others, have filed Clery Act and Title IX complaints against their schools for mishandling their sexual assault cases. More recently, the Columbia, Missouri police department opened an investigation into the alleged rape and subsequent suicide of a University of Missouri swimmer. The case was brought to public attention by an ESPN article that detailed the school’s supposed  failure to investigate the student athlete’s alleged assault, which the article speculated may have been a factor in her depression and suicide. 

Student activists at Columbia are hopeful that Bollinger’s statements of support signify a desire for concrete change from the administration.

“I’m very confident about the progress that we’re making,” Sejal Singh, president of the Columbia University Democrats, told The Daily Beast. “This is a major step towards transparency and accountability in the process, but there is definitely a lot more to be changed about the policy itself and the ways in which it’s enforced.”

“I think that there are students who will be relentless in working towards seeing very concrete changes in this policy,” Bahr said, describing a “broad coalition” of students who were working on the issue. “I think this is something that affects them very personally and I cannot imagine that the student body will be satisfied with a lip-service statement.”