Of 33 alleged sexual assaults on campus that were reported to Public Safety in the past two years, Spectator has found that only two resulted in an alert sent to the Columbia community, in some cases leaving students unaware of repeated assaults within the same geographical area in a short span of time.
In one case, three sexual assaults were reported within a two-block radius on 121st Street near an undergraduate dorm between September and October 2015. Students were not notified by the University.
Those statistics raise questions about when the University should let students know about reports of violent crimes and whether that knowledge could help increase awareness that would bolster student safety.
Under a federal law known as the Clery Act, Public Safety is legally required to notify students of crimes—including sex offenses—on campus when there’s an ongoing threat of danger. The act requires universities to alert students when there’s “ongoing danger” after an assault, especially when the assailant is unidentified and still at large.
In almost a third of sexual assault cases at Columbia the assailant is a stranger, according to a 2015 American Association for Universities survey. The University may not be legally required to alert students of the bulk of sexual assaults on campus, especially in cases where the perpetrator has been identified or apprehended.
In keeping with the law, all assaults are recorded in a report published once per year by Public Safety. But that report, released in October, only lists the number of annual assaults—not the date or location of any of them. In order to obtain a full list of locations of sexual assaults, students would have to visit Public Safety’s office and comb through hundreds of pages of daily crime logs from years past. As such, reports of sexual assaults that are not announced in alerts are largely unknown to the student body.
By comparison, other universities go beyond the legal requirements of the Clery Act to make information about the prevalence of sexual assault on campus more easily accessible. Dozens of universities acknowledge on their websites that the spirit of the Act lies in the belief that “crime awareness can prevent crime victimization.” Some go above and beyond the Clery act’s requirements, such as University of Minnesota, which provides an interactive map of reported crimes on campus.
“I see a lot of campuses are erring on the side of overreporting for fear that they haven’t shared information that they should,” Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law, said. “There’s a tendency sometimes to write so many reports that people become immune to it and it’s a fine line between under- and overreporting.”
A Spectator review of crime logs at Columbia revealed that dozens of sexual assaults were reported on campus that did not trigger an alert since 2015, at least 10 of which happened in residence halls.
In 2016, a student reported that someone broke into her Hartley Hall dorm and assaulted her twice in the same semester the year before her report. (That student, Amelia Roskin-Frazee, is now suing the University for its handling of her reports of assault.) Other assaults were reported in dorms including John Jay Hall, Carman Hall, McBain Hall, and Nussbaum Hall, none of which triggered alerts.
Citing the need for more awareness of ongoing threats and sexual assault on campus, anti-sexual assault activist group No Red Tape has called on Public Safety to revise its criteria and more regularly provide alerts.
A spokesperson for Public Safety said that Clery alerts are only sent out when the office determines that there’s an “ongoing threat” to students and that Public Safety also weighs whether the Gender-Based Misconduct Office has opened a case or enacted any interim measures when determining whether to send an alert. Public Safety administrators were not made available for an interview for this story.
A spokesperson for Columbia’s Title IX office said that it frequently liaises with Public Safety and others in circumstances that warrant alerts.
Of the two sexual assaults that did trigger Clery alerts, one sent in March 2015 warned students of a sexual assault that had been reported three days earlier, in which an assailant unknown to the person who was assaulted had followed a them to their residence from 1020 Bar late at night. Another alert sent in November 2015 notified students of a sexual assault that had occurred in East Campus Residence Hall at 3 a.m. that morning, allegedly committed by two people known to the person who was assaulted.
Students voiced concern that they are unaware of patterns that emerge in assaults near campus.
“I definitely want to know because I was totally caught off guard. I would never even think that something like that would happen in Hartley,” Hartley resident Rishi Shah, CC ’20, said. “I don’t know if a Clery alert immediately is the right option, but we should definitely inform the residents of what happened.”
According to Lake, universities should send alerts when reported sexual assaults are both recent and near other students.
“If there’s a violent rape in a residence hall and the perpetrator’s believed to be at large and on campus, you’d want to alert students of that,” Lake said. “Not every assault raises the timeliness concern, but depending on how the pattern plays out and what type of reports you’d see, you have to do something.”
Even if reports are made after the assault occurred, universities can choose to share information about assaults in dorms with residents, according to Katie Shipp, a Title IX expert and associate at Marsh Law Firm.
“If there’s a perpetrator who’s unknown and still at large, that typically would trigger a Clery report,” Shipp said. “If in one dorm there’s repeated sexual assaults done and the perpetrator has repeated characteristics or they don’t know the specific perpetrator, I would think that they would need to issue a warning before the annual report.”
Ingrid Pan, CC ’20, said she would like access to more information about sexual assaults as they’re reported on campus.
“I think that’s important information to know, just to be aware of what’s happening where you’re living,” she said. “These things really do happen on college campuses and in your own dorm.”