Content Warning: This article deals with issues of sexual violence.
On the morning of October 23, Business School student Katie Brehm woke up confused.
She remembers the back of her head, which throbbed, and her stomach, which felt bloated, and her pelvis, which ached as though it had been punched and squeezed from the inside. At 31, Brehm claims she hasn’t blacked out from drinking in over half a decade. But she doesn’t remember how she got there, in her room and on her bed, or what made her feel that way.
“I just didn’t know why my body was in so much pain, why it hurt like that,” Brehm said.
A little after 10 a.m., she responded to a few concerned messages from her friends, and asked for details of what happened last night at The Jane Hotel, where students had gathered for a party. In the following days, Brehm learned more of the narrative from conversations with classmates, security camera footage from The Jane, the administration of a rape kit by a SAFE nurse, and texts with the person she would ultimately identify as the alleged perpetrator.
“Still trying to piece the night back together,” she messaged him a few days after.
Brehm remembered everything between her arrival at 10:55 p.m., according to the Lyft receipt, and sending a text to a friend at 12:40 a.m about their upcoming vacation.
In a conversation with another friend the evening after, Brehm found that the friend had taken her home in a cab around 2:30 a.m., after she had collapsed and hit her head. Right before, Brehm had been with a male classmate—someone she said she remembered speaking to inside the hotel—who left as soon as she fell, the friend added. So Brehm texted the classmate about what happened in those two hours, but she said she noticed inconsistencies in what he described about their interaction.
The pelvic pain, the nurse’s description of her injuries following her examination, and the fact that students said they had been together at the end of the night led Brehm to identify him as the alleged perpetrator and submit his name to Columbia’s Gender-Based Misconduct Office on Nov. 6, initiating a formal investigation process with the University.
Since then, Brehm has worked with both the Special Victims Division of the New York Police Department and administrators who have shown her footage from The Jane that night—including footage showing her leaving the hotel. In addition to granting Spectator numerous interviews, Brehm provided extensive documentation of her story, including emails and text messages between herself and the perpetrator, as well as emails with administrators and NYPD detectives. Spectator has not independently reviewed the video footage from the hotel.
But though she has no memory of what occurred between 12:40 a.m. and her departure at around 2:30 a.m., Brehm said the impact of those few hours on her life are clear—she feels unsafe sleeping in her home at night, unsafe walking to class, and unsafe getting groceries.
“I was questioning whether my apartment was safe, if it was safe for me to walk home at night. Every time I have a drink now, I have to manage the chain of command,” Katie said. “It’s tiring to live like that.”
In response, she requested a no contact directive from the University, prohibiting direct communication between herself and the alleged perpetrator, including written statements or text messages, on or off campus. But in Uris Hall, where the Business School is housed, his locker was still fewer than 10 feet away, they still attended classes in the same vicinities, and they both were involved in some of the same clubs. Later, he would directly approach a conversation between Brehm and a friend at an event sponsored by the Business School, and interrupted them to speak directly to Brehm’s friend, while she stood just a few feet away.
NCDs are not the only avenue through which a university may be able to provide accommodations for those who report sexual misconduct; Columbia offers dorm and course reassignments, among other possibilities.
But interviews with Title IX and campus security experts demonstrate how, at universities across the nation, NCDs are both the first and last line of defense in cases of sexual misconduct, serving as an interim measure before an investigation begins as well as the primary, and sometimes only, disciplinary measure enforced at its conclusion. The experts cite a growing debate on a university’s obligations regarding the conditions of NCDs, but also point to how many universities do not fully account for the extensive implications of sexual misconduct on an alleged victim’s capacity to continue their education.
In Brehm’s case, she was told by administrators, again and again, that there was nothing more that could be done.
Brehm first said the word rape on the afternoon of Oct. 25, to a sexual assault forensic examiner (SAFE) nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital. The previous day, Columbia Health had diagnosed her with a concussion, but she was still left with unexplained pain. Brehm wanted more information, so Columbia Health referred her to St. Luke’s, where she said she received a drug-facilitated sexual assault rape kit.
According to Brehm, the SAFE nurse who performed the exam found bruising on her thighs in addition to vaginal bruising, though it revealed no evidence of male DNA. A SAFE nurse, however, is prohibited from explicitly labeling an instance as rape or sexual assault.
“Even as the nurse was pointing things out all over my body, I ultimately had the choice if I wanted to be in denial about what I had experienced. I decided not to be,” Brehm said.
Since then, neither administrators, police, nor Brehm have been able to retrieve SAFE nurse medical examination report detailing the official results of the rape kit.
Brehm submitted reports of her alleged drugging and rape to the Gender-Based Misconduct Office later that evening, and simultaneously began an investigation with Detective William McLaughlin at NYPD. She spent hours reviewing footage over the following weeks, speaking to friends for more details, compiling text messages, and even emailing all 70 people in her cluster—a group of students who take first-year courses together—for more information.
“I look forward to updates, it will bring me some peace,” she wrote in an email to McLaughlin at the start of November.
Upon identifying the alleged perpetrator, Brehm requested an interim no contact directive in meetings with Business School Assistant Dean of Students Zelon Crawford on Nov. 7, and the Title IX Coordinator and Gender-Based Misconduct Office on Nov. 9. She ultimately received one on Nov. 20, after nearly leaving the University and unenrolling from courses.
The directive mandates that no direct communication occurs between the two individuals—both on or off campus—including communication through a third party. According to emails from the Title IX Coordinator to Brehm, the University is unable to place sanctions on the alleged perpetrator’s attendance at social functions or club meetings without the conclusion of a formal investigation.
But as Brehm walked around on campus and in Uris Hall, she realized that they would inevitably cross paths, even though neither were signed up for the same classes and Brehm no longer went to the club meetings for the groups they were both a part of.
The University aims to create interim no contact directives with the primary goal of ensuring that both parties are able to continue their time at Columbia in meaningful and productive ways, in regards to both academic and social life. Possible sanctions are weighed with respect to both the safety of the complainant and interference against the alleged perpetrator.
For Brehm, this meant that his locker—fewer than 10 feet away from hers—couldn’t be moved, and that it was her role to duck into reserved rooms if she saw him between classes and wanted to hide. And on Feb. 1, it meant that when he interrupted a conversation between Brehm and her friend, and began talking to her friend while standing just six inches away from her, there was nothing she could do and no violation she could report.
“I froze, I didn’t move, my breathing got stressed, my stomach was incredibly anxious. I felt sick to my stomach and nauseous, and about 10 minutes later, I threw up,” Brehm said.
She said she did bring this up to an administrator, who informed her that without direct physical contact, or a sign of direct communication, proximity is not, in and of itself, a violation of the directive. The University declined to comment on the particular instance, but emphasized that all possibilities were weighed in accordance with the goal of the NCD.
According to S. Daniel Carter, president of a national law firm that advises universities on safety procedures related to victims’ rights, many universities have begun to overemphasize the rights of the accused in the context of Title IX complaints, particularly with changes introduced under the Trump administration. Carter argued that universities are fully capable—even obligated—to take stronger measures to ensure student safety.
“A very limited no contact order is very likely to be ineffective at eliminating a hostile environment when you have a direct, alleged, facilitated sexual assault or rape,” Carter said. “You can ensure a basic fair process, but ... if a survivor is able to be in close proximity to their alleged assailant, that does not remedy the hostile environment. You are failing to remedy the situation.”
In anticipation of the potential proximity of her alleged perpetrator, Brehm chose not to attend classes or club meetings, often avoiding Uris altogether, and made sure she was accompanied by friends whenever possible.
Title IX expert Peter F. Lake emphasized that NCDs are becoming increasingly popular and central in the debate over universities’ roles in responding to Title IX complaints. Lake said he has seen a significant rise in the number of national NCD cases, particularly as they can serve as both an interim measure and a disciplinary sanction imposed at the close of an investigation.
He also noted that universities do not seem fully equipped—in terms of neither resources nor knowledge—to address nuanced concerns around the directives.
“This is such a ubiquitous practice ... but the public doesn’t realize the tremendous amount of resources and effort that goes behind [an NCD],” Lake said. “It can take a tremendous amount of administrative resources, financial resources, training that almost no university is equipped to provide.”
The debate over NCDs reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit this February, when a student at Iowa State University, who filed a suit against the university for placing her in the same dorm as her rapist despite an interim NCD, appealed the district court’s decision that exonerated ISU. She ultimately lost the case, but the decision sparked controversy even among Title IX experts over what interim measures a university is able and obligated to provide.
Citing numerous incidents of hyper-specific complaints under NCDs from both sides, Lake said he understands why a university may find it difficult to even move a locker—for example, the person next to where the alleged perpetrator has been placed may then raise objections. However, Lake said universities must take into account and define the difference between a sanction and an interim measure: Moving a person, or both persons involved, may not necessarily constitute disciplinary action.
“Sanction versus intervention—it’s still an open-ended question. A lot of what could be taken as disciplinary measures could simply just be act of intervening. There are legal implications, but it’s also up to a university to decide,” Lake said.
Carter added that there is no mandate for an NCD to even be a mutual contract; these considerations only arose under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s recommendations put forth in 2017. Though universities purport NCDs to be measures that involve stipulations for both students, Carter said there should be a greater burden on the alleged perpetrator if needed to ensure the safety and health of the complainant.
“There’s no chapter or verse that say any university cannot take stronger interim measures, particularly when the presence of the accused will almost always significantly interfere with the success and safety of the complainant,” he said. “There’s no need for this directive to be mutual; the complainant is not being accused for violating the direct safety of another person.”
In lieu of an NCD that she felt could not provide an effective safety measure, Brehm requested and received an order of protection through New York Family Court on Feb. 11.
“My no contact order provided minimal protections. … I wish I had done this sooner,” she said a few days after receiving the document. “I feel so much safer.”
In the days following, Brehm staged a protest in Uris Hall, calling for a better University response as numerous classmates walked by, and hosted a conversation on women’s empowerment with New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister.
Ultimately, Brehm said she will take a leave of absence this semester as well, and does not imagine herself returning to the school, citing both the exhaustion of the process and the lack of guarantee for any tangible or positive outcome. She also noted that she may work for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, or take on a different job in the meantime.
“The outstanding feeling is exhaustion. I feel exhausted, and ready to move on to do other things,” Brehm said.
Lake emphasized that many of these questions around no contact directives remain unanswered, both in relation to the legal system and on college campuses.
“It’s really an untold story, but we’re going to have to see it told in the coming years,” Lake said.