Title Wave

Examining Sexual Assault Polices at Columbia and Nationwide

Warning: This piece contains material about sexual assault on college campuses that might be upsetting to some readers. 

When it landed in Columbia students’ inboxes after a widely-circulated petition, a gut-wrenching exposé, and months of public scrutiny, President Bollinger’s “Statement Regarding Gender-Based Misconduct and Sexual Assault” was greeted with cautious optimism.

“I think it signifies that the administration is willing to work with us, that they recognize the urgency of the problem,” Sejal Singh, a Columbia College junior and president of the Columbia University Democrats, says. “But, I do think there’s a lot of further steps to be taken.”

Bollinger’s statement, released on Jan. 29, promises the release of “aggregate, anonymous data related to sexual assaults and other gender-based misconduct.” It also voices support for both a reevaluation of the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault and a public forum for students and administrators to discuss “ways to improve the handling of gender-based misconduct cases.” Bollinger’s letter was the first official, public response by the University administration to the Dems’ petition for greater transparency since it was first introduced in October 2013.

Since then, sexual assault—how often it happens, how the University responds when it does, and how the University works to prevent it—has been a near-constant topic of conversation on campus. Over the course of four months of activism and media exposure, the glaring flaws in Columbia’s approach to the issue have become increasingly apparent, as have the changes desperately needed to fix them.

The fight for a more effective response to sexual violence on campus brings up problems all too familiar to Columbia students: administrative opacity, ineffective bureaucracy, and a disconnect between the resources supposedly offered and those actually available. But it also ties into a larger, national push to address sexual assault on campuses—an effort that currently involves dozens of schools and complaints filed with the Department of Education. By late January, concerns about campus assault acquired enough momentum to prompt President Obama’s formation of a national task force, announced exactly one week before President Bollinger issued his statement.

Both Columbia’s decision to release anonymous data and the White House task force mark important turning points in recognizing the pervasiveness of assault at universities. Yet, it remains to be seen whether these initiatives mark the beginning, rather than the end, of the struggle to make college an environment where students can expect to be safe—and survivors can expect justice.

HOSTILE ENVIRONMENTS

The current wave of activism surrounding campus sexual assault dates back to Spring 2011. In April of that year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued what is known as a “Dear Colleague Letter” clarifying colleges’ and universities’ obligations under Title IX. Though commonly associated with athletics, the 1972 law applies to gender equity in all aspects of higher education, including sexual assault.

The letter, signed by then-Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Russlynn Ali, outlines in detail the Department of Education’s interpretation of the statute. In its first paragraph, the document states unequivocally: “The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.”

To that end, the letter outlines three principal responsibilities schools bear under Title IX: publishing a notice of nondiscrimination on the basis of sex; appointing a Title IX coordinator to oversee and address complaints relating to violations of Title IX, including sexual assault; and providing grievance procedures, including a “reliable and impartial investigation” conducted within a “reasonably prompt” time frame. The letter also states that schools ought to take preventive measures against assault—such as mandatory consent education programs—and offer interim measures for survivors while grievance procedures are still in process, including limiting contact with the assailant and providing academic, medical, and psychological support.

Just a few weeks before the release of the letter, reports of rampant sexual assault and harassment were surfacing out of Yale University. A group of Yale students came forward with an official enumeration of the university's shortcomings in response to sexual assault.

Filed jointly by 16 students, the complaint alleged that Yale had effectively created “a hostile environment” through its failure to take effective action against sexual harassment and assault. In fall 2010, a group of fraternity pledges who chanted “No means yes! Yes means anal!” through the freshman quad went without university sanctions; so did a group of men who chanted “Dick!” repeatedly in front of the Yale Women’s Center in 2008 before uploading a picture of themselves holding a “We Love Yale Sluts” sign to Facebook. Five student testimonials included in the complaint recounted how their experiences with assault and harassment interfered with their education, bringing Yale’s actions (or lack thereof) squarely under the purview of Title IX.

Yale would become the first of 21 schools to come under federal investigation for its handling of sexual assault in the last three years.

Titled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” the White House Council on Women and Girls report announced concurrently with the federal task force in January depicts campus sexual assault as a problem far beyond the faulty policies of a handful of schools. The numbers alone are stunning: according to the White House letter, one in five women have been assaulted while in college; most survivors are assaulted by someone they know; fewer than one in eight survivors report their assault to law enforcement.

These numbers come as little surprise to Andrea Pino—a University of North Carolina senior, survivor, and founder of a national network of student activists known as the IX Network.

“What we’re seeing across the board with these is that every school in this country is the location of campus sexual violence,” Pino says. “If they have not come under fire yet, it’s because they haven’t come under scrutiny yet. It’s an issue that is much more systemic than just a few policies and just a few students protesting. It’s a problem that affects our entire college experience.”

Pino filed a formal Title IX complaint against UNC in January 2013, along with fellow survivor and 2011 graduate Annie Clark. At the time, UNC adjudicated assault cases through its honor system, whereby a panel of untrained undergraduates were appointed to determine the guilt or innocence of alleged assailants, who were also their peers.

Though she had initially sought change within her own university as a Resident Advisor and member of its Title IX search committee, Pino began to connect the dots when she heard about Angie Epifano, an Amherst College student who published a horrifying account of her rape and subsequent mistreatment by the college administration in October 2012. After going to Amherst’s counseling center, Epifano was sent to the local hospital’s psychiatric ward, prevented from studying abroad or even leaving campus for the summer, and eventually chose to withdraw from Amherst altogether. Her rapist graduated with honors.

“I saw so much of what I had been dealing with at Carolina in her words,” Pino says. “It clicked to me that if I could connect with other schools, maybe we could cause there to be a spotlight, not just on UNC, but on other campuses.”

After filing their complaint with the Department of Education, Pino and Clark invited survivors at other schools to come forward with their grievances. “We said since the first day the issue was not just about Carolina, but about the systemic problem on college campuses across the country,” Pino explains. Soon, students from Occidental College and Swarthmore College approached them, followed by activists at University of Southern California, Dartmouth, Amherst, Emerson, and the University of Connecticut, each of which currently faces an investigation by the OCR. Clark and Pino both consulted with organizers on their individual complaints and connected them with each other, creating an online community that eventually became the IX Network.

Last semester, the conversation surrounding campus assault reached Morningside Heights. Smita Sen, a Columbia College sophomore who went to high school with Pino, founded Title IX Team, a Columbia-specific organization dedicated to raising awareness of survivors’ Title IX rights. A few weeks later, the Dems released their petition calling for greater transparency.

SOMETHING GOING WRONG HERE

Both Sen and Singh cited a combination of national attention and anecdotal evidence as their basis for getting involved in addressing sexual assault at Columbia. “It hurts you a lot when you see one of your friends hurt in that way,” Sen says, referencing Pino’s experience at UNC. “But then I picked up on a lot of the activism and I saw all the work she was doing, and I realized that this is something I wanted to get involved with. I wanted to make sure this isn’t happening at Columbia.”

Sen, who has since stepped down as president of Title IX Team, heard survivors complain of “a very cold and unapproachable process.” She cited one survivor whose charge of sexual harassment was outright rejected by the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, only to face 18 separate meetings with administrators to explain her lapse in academic performance.

Founded last fall, Title IX Team works to inform students of survivors’ rights under federal law, as well as document survivor grievances and compare them with existing statutes. Its mission statement is similar to that of Know Your IX, a national educational campaign launched by Alexandra Brodsky, one of the 16 Yale co-complainants, and Dana Bolger, a survivor and recent Amherst alumna, in March 2013.

Three pieces of federal legislation outline schools’ obligations to prevent and address sexual assault: Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Campus SaVE Act. Beyond the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter’s three primary requirements, students’ rights under Title IX extend to freedom from retaliation by either the assailant or the school and entitlement to any accommodating measures that allow survivors to continue their education, regardless of whether they have formally reported their assault.

“If you live in the same dormitory as your assailant, your college should be accommodating your request to move out of your building or moving your assailant out. If you’re in the same class, or if you work the same campus job, or if you’re on the same sports team as your assailant, your school should be making accommodations for all of that,” Bolger emphasizes. “Your school should also make accommodations for academic difficulties due to sexual violence and the effects of that, like PTSD and depression.”

The Clery Act, meanwhile, requires universities to publish an annual report of all crimes committed on campus, including sexual assault. Columbia’s most recent annual security report documents 12 instances of “forcible sex offenses” reported on campus in 2012, as compared to three in 2011 and four in 2010. The Campus SaVE Act, passed as part of Congress’ reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, expands that requirement to all forms of gender-based misconduct, including intimate partner violence and harassment. It also mandates that schools provide written notification of survivors’ rights under Title IX, options for reporting assault, and available resources.

At Columbia, Title IX Team has worked extensively with the Dems to bring sexual assault to the forefront of campus dialogue. Last November, members took to College Walk with signs reading “Sexual Harassment Happens Here” and “Trigger Warning” in a “freeze mob.” The group also created a blog for survivors to share their stories. On the policy side, Title IX Team began bringing survivor grievances to administrators, stripped of identifying details, to point out potential areas of improvement.

When Sen outlined the harassment case that had been rejected out of hand, administrators told her it ought to have been accepted for adjudication. “I don’t know what I would call that,” Sen says. “But it speaks to the fact that there is something going wrong here.”

BARRIERS TO REFORM

When Singh was approached by a number of survivors and concerned students at the end of the last academic year, she began to have concerns similar to Sen’s.

“Honestly, I’ve had students tell me that their friends told them not to report assaults, that their medical professionals told them not to report assaults because they felt that the University was so unlikely to do anything useful for them or to take any sort of meaningful action," Singh says. "And when we have survivors facing such serious barriers to reporting their assaults, then there's no way the University is going to deal with it appropriately." 

The Dems ultimately decided to petition for the release of anonymous data to see whether the “horror stories” of individual survivors were reflective of a larger problem with Columbia’s approach to sexual violence. Other schools’ disclosure of information had led in some cases to public outcry and, eventually, promises of reform. As part of the settlement for its 2011 complaint, for example, Yale now releases a semiannual report detailing all reported incidents of sexual assault, both cases currently under investigation and those that have resulted in a decision by the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Assault. When an August 2013, report revealed that out of four respondents found responsible for “nonconsensual sex,” one was suspended for a year, one was put on probation, and two were merely issued written reprimands, University President Peter Salovey issued a statement admitting “more information should be made available to advise the community about the basis for the penalties.” The statement came after students started multiple petitions calling for stricter punishments for perpetrators and the report received significant negative attention in the national press.

“Right now, we have no idea how Columbia is punishing these rapists,” Singh says. “We have no way of knowing whether those problems are happening at Columbia. We have good reason to suspect so, if for no other reason than that they’re happening everywhere.”

“Part of the problem is, we can’t recommend so many further changes because we don’t know what changes are necessary at this moment,” agrees Marc Heinrich, a Columbia College sophomore and university senator who has worked with Singh to bring concerns to administrators.

Though the specific data to be released have yet to be determined, Heinrich suggests a number of statistics that might clarify what needs to change. “We want to see if there’s a problem, for example, with interim measures” such as ensuring that parties live in separate residence halls during the hearing process, a right the Dear Colleague Letter states all survivors have under Title IX. “Are they offered in every situation? Are they accepted? Have there still been issues once they’ve been accepted?” he asks.

Heinrich also brought up the hearing panels that determine whether or not the respondent is responsible for assault. While the official Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students states that each three-person panel consists of at least two senior administrators and, whenever possible, one student, no information about the panelists’ selection or training is currently available. “Do they know anything about the issue? Is this just them judging based on their experience?” Heinrich asks. “We really want to make sure that the panels are fair for students.”

Finally, Heinrich voices his concerns about the appeals process: “After a case, how many of those go to appeal, and how many of those appeals get reversed? Obviously we’re not saying that not a single case should ever get a reversal, but if over half of the cases get reversed, we think that’s a little bit of an issue.”

Before Bollinger’s announcement, Heinrich and Singh had met with an ad hoc subcommittee of PACSA to make the case for releasing such aggregated information. The subcommittee, which included Interim Dean of Student Affairs Terry Martinez and Vice President of Campus Services Scott Wright, was formed from a 24-member body whose membership, structure, and responsibilities remain unpublicized. PACSA aims to meet twice a semester, although its January meeting was postponed after co-chair Jeffrey Scott, former Executive Vice President for Student and Administrative Services, left the University.

Until data is released, students are forced to rely on word-of-mouth narratives from survivors willing to come forward. Powerful as they may be, particular cases are almost impossible to bring to administrators as a basis for reform.

“The administration can’t comment on specific issues, so we can ask, ‘How long in general do cases take?’ And they’ll say 60 days,” Heinrich explains, referring to the goal time frame for adjudicating cases outlined in Columbia’s current sexual assault policy. “But we can’t ask, ‘We saw this one case, why did this take 90 days?’ Because they legally are not able to comment on specific cases.”

SHAMING THE INSTITUTION

What specific cases can do, however, is shame institutions into action.

The grievances brought up by the Democrats’ petition were given horrifying weight when the Blue and White released its two-part series on sexual assault this January. Writer Anna Bahr spoke with a dozen survivors for the story, including three assaulted by the same perpetrator, whom she called “Tom” to protect his identity. The series, available in full on Bwog, catalogues a litany of flaws in Columbia’s handling of sexual assault—both its adjudicative process through the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct and the resources it makes available to survivors.

The narratives in the series point out dozens of failings in Columbia’s approach to assault, from prevention to first response to holding assailants accountable. One survivor, called “Catherine” in the series, was unable to access the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center because the University’s main resource for giving immediate, confidential help to those who need it is closed for the entire week of freshman orientation. Another, “Sara,” had major details of her story mistranscribed by an administrator, and, later, one of her panelists seemed puzzled by the concept of anal rape. Elizabeth’s assailant was suspended from housing, only to be moved back into the dormitories a full semester ahead of schedule—into Elizabeth’s residence hall.

Since the series’ publication, its constituent articles have received over a hundred comments and 1,700 Facebook likes. Perhaps more significantly, however, changes announced to Columbia’s adjudication procedures at a Feb. 10 Columbia College Student Council meeting appear to address specific issues highlighted by the Blue and White series. Two administrators, rather than one, will now take notes on personal statements like Sara’s; additionally, the University has expressed a commitment to ensuring the availability of interim measures during the hearing process.

Sara, who also spoke to the New York Post for an article released this December, first approached the media after she sent a letter to President Bollinger alerting him to her situation during the fall semester. She received a reply not from Bollinger, but from his attorney.

“I felt like no one was on my side,” Sara says. “I was just like, if anybody outside of this school can see how fucked up this institution is, they would have to change their ways. I felt like shining some media light on them was going to be a good thing.” She reached out to the Post independently, and has subsequently spoken to the Blue and White, Spectator, and now The Eye, about her experiences with the adjudicative process.

Bolger also cites media attention as one of the most effective means of forcing change on an otherwise inert system. After Epifano published her story in fall 2012, Amherst College President Carolyn Martin responded with a statement within days. By spring 2012, Amherst had instituted several reforms to its hearing process, including allowing parties to submit personal statements and hiring a trained investigator to meet with survivors. Martin also commissioned a nine-person Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct, which included two students and issued a highly critical 50-page evaluation of Amherst’s policies in January 2013.

“That’s not to say that everything’s perfect at Amherst now—it certainly isn’t,” Bolger says. “But I certainly think that calling out your school, shaming them, and making them feel it where it really matters for them—which has a lot to do with alumni donations, applicationrates, the numbers of students who walk through your school. I think that’s really the best way to get schools to act on this issue.”

THE TRANSPARENCY PROBLEM

Beyond the release of aggregate data promised by President Bollinger’s statement, several initiatives to reform Columbia’s approach to sexual assault remain on the table.

Shortly after the start of the semester, the Office of the Provost unveiled “a new website portal to connect Columbia students and employees to important information about discrimination, harassment, and gender-based misconduct at Columbia.” The site includes information on how to report an assault, relevant policies, and a page of frequently asked questions, some of which were written and answered by members of Title IX Team.

While both the Democrats and Title IX Team had lobbied the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct for a remodeled website, Sen still sees room for improvement. “It’s an important step because if you went to the website before, it was atrocious,” she explains. But the site, accessible at titleix.columbia.edu, is still difficult to find from other Columbia web pages, and Sen calls the information it provides about students’ Title IX rights “insufficient.”

“There are a lot more rights in terms of what the University has to do in order to protect you as a survivor” than the short paragraph included under “What Is Title IX?”, Sen notes.

Sara was more openly critical. Better information about where survivors can find resources is useless, after all, if those resources consistently fail to serve survivors well. “It’s not true to say that the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct is a resource when all they’re doing is shutting us up,” she says.

Students are also pushing for transparency and changes at the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center. Groups such as the Columbia Queer Alliance have asked the RC/AVSC to release information about its volunteer training, particularly as it pertains to the Center’s queer and trans* competency. Meanwhile, the Dems have questioned the RC/AVSC’s accessibility for non-Barnard students, who must tell a security guard they are going to either the RC/AVSC or 107 Hewitt Hall, the RC/AVSC’s location, before being allowed entry. “A number of people have told us it made them extremely uncomfortable to have to out themselves as a survivor just to get help,” Singh says.

As for accessibility, Barnard does not seem to plan on changing its policy in the near future. “The RC/AVSC is located in a residence hall and the access protocol is in place to protect residents, staff, and volunteers, while being mindful of the sensitivity and related privacy concerns, of students seeking RC/AVSC services,” Barnard Title IX Coordinator Amy Zavadil wrote in an email. At a town hall organized by Barnard’s Student Government Association held last November, Zavadil led a discussion regarding underreported sexual assault on campus. A Spectator article covering the event stated that Zavadil wanted to “empower students to become involved in the protection of their community.”

Zavadil’s responsiveness draws a stark contrast to the evasiveness of other Columbia administrators. Multiple requests for interviews with administrators went unanswered. After contacting La’Shawn Rivera, Columbia’s Sexual Violence Response director, and Melissa Rooker, Columbia’s Title IX coordinator, The Eye was redirected to Robert Hornsby, associate vice president for media relations, who I was told was coordinating a response to this article. Hornsby scheduled an interview with Rooker, then placed it “on hold” and never rescheduled. Requests for interviews with Rivera and Melissa Tihinen, the RC/AVSC’s Clinical Advisor, were never responded to.

The undergraduate student councils also have several pending projects related to assault response and prevention. CCSC Vice President for Policy Bob Sun has approached Columbia’s general council about RAs’ status as mandatory reporters of assault, meaning RAs are obligated to inform the University of any incidents that fall under the purview of Title IX. Survivors thus cannot turn to their RAs for help and expect to remain confidential.

The policy, which dates back to changes implemented after the Dear Colleague Letter’s publication, threatens to create a “chilling environment, in the sense that maybe you don’t feel comfortable speaking out because you don’t want it to be reported in a certain setting... You’re not sure who can and can’t report, so it goes unsaid in any form,” Sun says. Though Sun said he is optimistic about altering, or at least clarifying, the policy, no changes have been announced thus far.

On the prevention side, a task force chaired by first-year CCSC representative Abby Porter focuses on reforming Consent 101, the orientation program in which upperclassman facilitators discuss consent and coercion with incoming freshmen. The program has long suffered from poor attendance, and complaints about the levity of its tone have come up frequently since sexual assault rose to the forefront of conversation on campus. More disturbingly, one of the survivors interviewed for the Blue and White series was raped by her Consent 101 facilitator, the very person responsible for explaining to first-years the idea of consent.

The task force will discuss proposed changes such as providing Under1Roof-style make up sessions and changing the curriculum of the workshop to underscore the gravity of its subject. The task forces’s final proposal is still in progress.

“It’s literally the only potentially mandatory venue that Columbia students will go to to talk about this issue,” Sarah Weinstein—a Columbia College sophomore who served as a consent educator during NSOP 2013—says, underscoring the importance of ensuring that as many freshmen as possible get accurate information about what constitutes consent. Porter hopes to implement changes by NSOP 2014.

Many of these potential changes are included in a list of 32 proposals the newly-formed Coalition Against Sexual Violence presented to administrators, including Scott’s successor as PACSA co-chair Joe Ienuso, on Feb. 17. The CASV, whose membership is open to all students, includes members from the CU Dems, Title IX Team, CQA, and GendeRevolution. Its proposals are available in full online.

Full disclosure: I participated in the CASV meeting on Sunday, Feb. 16, including deliberations over the wording of its proposals.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

More work remains on the national front as well. On Feb. 11, the OCR announced its latest investigation of a university’s sexual assault policy, this time targeting the University of Chicago. And the White House Task Force will not present its recommendations for at least another two months. After that, it remains uncertain whether those recommendations will result in substantive, let alone timely, federal action.

“I’m hopeful that the [White House Task Force] will have something to turn up, and that 90 days will be positive, but in 90 days, it’ll be right around the time I’m graduating from college,” Pino points out.

In the meantime, universities are responding to specific protests and investigations rather than proactively addressing assault. “It’s an issue that is much more systemic than just a few policies and just a few students protesting,” Pino argues. But colleges are “reacting to these [Title IX] complaints. They’re copying what other school did it right, or didn’t do it right, for that matter. They’re not actually tackling the crux of the issue.”

The heart of the problem, many activists said, was not a specific policy or procedure, but a climate that silences survivors, shields perpetrators, and treats assault as a minor offense.

“We may have a great policy, but students are not going to report or go through the adjudication process until you create a community that is safe and supportive,” Pino says. “And it’s not right now. Students do not want to go through the adjudication process, because they know if they come forward, they won’t be believed. That hasn’t changed.”

The message that universities cannot be trusted to “treat survivors as human beings and not liabilities,” as Bolger puts it, sends a twofold message: Survivors are better off not coming forward with their stories, and assailants can expect to walk away with little to no consequences.

“At Amherst, a student that stole a laptop was suspended for five semesters, and students that commit sexual assault are typically suspended for two to four semesters,” Bolger recalls. “That sends a really clear message to perpetrators, that their violence will be tolerated and even condoned, and to the campus community as a whole that sexual violence just isn’t that big of a deal.”

Although a full picture of the sanctions against sexual assault will not be available until Columbia releases aggregate data, the anecdotal evidence indicates that the leniency Bolger describes at Amherst is present at Columbia as well. None of the accused assailants in the Blue and White story were expelled; the strictest penalty described in the series was suspension.

Administrators were reluctant to speak to Bahr for the Blue and White piece, and remain unwilling to engage in a dialogue that demands their accountability. However, at both Columbia and schools across the country, the goal of activism surrounding campus assault reaches beyond the adjudicative process, survivor support, or even active prevention. The aim is instead to create a culture that prioritizes consent and accountability as more than simply buzzwords.

“We’re so quick to just brush those cases off, or to blame the victim, or to not take cases of sexual assault seriously,” Singh says. “That doesn’t just mean expulsion or suspension. That means no one’s gonna think worse of them. I think all too often, that’s true. We don’t treat these cases with the seriousness that they warrant.” 

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Anonymous posted on

this is literally just a summary of a bunch of pieces reported by other writers. i don't get it.

Anonymous posted on

It's contextualizing what's happening in our community. It's more valuable to be informed of our role in the bigger picture, and make sure our next moves make sense, rather than to act/decide/have an opinion with Columbia information (which is what most of this campus has read at this point) alone.