Behind Columbia’s ‘rape lists’: ‘When existing systems fail, what then?’

Jun 28, 2014 by

Outraged by what they saw as campus mishandling of sexual assault allegations, a small group of students took matters into their own hands

Forced to hatch their plan inside the fishbowl-like conditions of today’s elite American university, during an age of always-on electronic communications, the co-conspirators’ first contacts were furtive and old-fashioned.

“We put nothing in writing. I’m not even sure if any single one of us knows the names of all the others involved,” said one student activist. “We came together through word of mouth, by reaching out to people we deeply trust.”

Disgusted by what they saw as Columbia University’s mishandling of a series of sexual assault allegations, which left several alleged offenders at large on campus, a small group of students came together in May to take matters into their own hands.

From 8 May, they began writing the names of four alleged assailants on to the stall of a women’s bathroom, under the heading “Sexual Assault on Campus”. At least 10 such lists, featuring the same four men’s names, have since been scrawled on restroom stalls around the college on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Three of the group spoke to the Guardian about why they acted.

“The most important thing was understanding the incredible extent of the university’s surveillance of those who challenge them,” said one of those who wrote the lists. “We couldn’t use Columbia email accounts or Columbia WiFi … and we had to be extremely careful about navigating the cameras that the university has placed everywhere on campus.”

Their direct action sparked controversy across a campus already reeling from the filing by 23 students of a complaint to the Department of Education. The 100-page document accuses the school of violating Title IX and the Clery Act – which ban sexual discrimination and non-disclosure of crime in schools – by failing to tackle dozens of sexual violence and harassment cases.

But the naming campaign also reflected a mounting frustration among students at a string of universities around the US who argue that college administrators are systematically playing down or failing to take responsibility for serious sexual crimes that threaten to tarnish the reputations of their institutions.

“The people who [wrote the names] potentially face criminal charges, defamation suits, administrative sanctioning, student backlash, the list goes on and on,” said Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, an organiser in the anti-rape student group No Red Tape, and the lead complainant in the Title IX filing.

A person probably wouldn’t do this unless they didn’t have any other choice.”

‘When the existing systems fail, what then?’

As members of one of America’s most prestigious colleges, studying in its most media-heavy city, the activists were conscious of the potential for public attention. But they insist that this was not their intention. “Publicity wasn’t the point,” said one. “Our audience was not the media, but the women on this campus who might be targeted by these men.”

The allegations of what students on campus have suffered already are grave. A police report filed in April by one senior, Emma Sulkowicz, alleges that a male student, who is at Columbia on a prestigious overseas scholarship and is a former university rower, anally raped her in August 2012. The report, which was first reported by the Columbia Spectator, was obtained by the Guardian. In it, Sulkowicz alleged that the male student “hit her across the face, choked her and pushed her knees onto her chest and leaned on her knees to keep them up.”

Sulkowicz previously filed a complaint through Columbia’s “gender-based and sexual misconduct” policy. After she and her alleged rapist were interviewed by investigators, a panel of three university administrators decided that there was insufficient evidence to meet their burden of proof: that the offence “more likely than not” was committed. The male student was found “not responsible” – a verdict ultimately reached in complaints made against him by two other women. He is currently studying overseas.

Even the opposite verdict might not have made much practical difference, however. When Cami Quarta, a junior at Columbia, complained through the school’s in-house mechanism that a male student had raped her, he promptly confessed to the investigators. After being found “responsible” for violating the school policy, he was suspended for one semester and is now back at the college. His name is one of the other three on the bathroom lists. His father made a contribution of between $10,000 and $25,000 to the school in the 2012-13 year. A review of public records did not reveal any previous donations to the school by the father, who did not respond to a request for comment by the Guardian.

“We needed some way to warn people that these people are violent,” said one of the activists who wrote the lists.

I don’t see the list as a viable alternative to an actual functioning system to deal with rape – but when the existing systems fail, what then?”

Columbia refuses to discuss “the particulars of disciplinary proceedings regarding sexual misconduct”, and did not respond to a request for comment by the Guardian.

Columbia is one of several universities under investigation by the Department of Education

A flurry of Title IX investigations

Exasperation at what is perceived as a timid response to allegations of serious sexual crimes is also being felt at other colleges around the US. The Columbia students’ complaint to the Department of Education followed a flurry of other federal filings last year at the University of North Carolina, UC Berkeley, Occidental College, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, the University of Southern California and Emerson College.

An unprecedented release of information by the department’s civil rights office in April disclosed that in all, 55 colleges in 28 states – including Dartmouth, Harvard, Harvard Law and Princeton – are under open Title IX sexual violence investigations. “We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue,” Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement.

But her department has itself faced allegations of sluggish responses. In the case of Berkeley, nine students initially filed a Clery Act request in May last year, demanding that the university reveal the extent of sexual assault on campus. But after nine months of apparent inaction by the department and a flood of students reporting similar cases, last February, 31 students filed another Clery Act Request and a Title IX filing, calling on the Office of Civil Rights to investigate Berkeley’s handling of campus sexual violence.

“If you’re waiting for months, maybe even years, to hear back about whether there’s going to be an investigation, then clearly there’s a big problem,” said Sofie Karasek, the lead complainant of Berkeley’s filing. “While you’re waiting, you have to bear the burden of knowing that more students will be assaulted and betrayed as their cases are systemically dismissed, ignored and mishandled.”

In recent months the Obama administration has responded with a public push to address the problem. In addition to the education department’s disclosures, a White House Task Force on campus assault published a report in April calling for increased efforts to identify and prevent assault on campus, and for greater transparency around and enforcement of such efforts on the part of the federal government.

After demanding action on sexual assault in the military, the Democratic senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri have also spoken out about the issue’s impact on campus. Gillibrand stood alongside Columbia victims at a press conference in April and called for $100m more in funding for the investigation and enforcement of campus assaults. The pair also want harsher penalties for non-compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act. Currently, the maximum fine for a Clery violation is $35,000 – a little over half of one student’s full tuition fee at top universities such as Columbia.

‘I am afraid I will receive harsher punishment than the rapists’

But students are impatient for action. “We can’t speak out publicly for fear of being sued,” said one of the Columbia activists. “The university prohibits survivors who report and their supporters from even speaking to friends about their rapists or the adjudication process,” said another. In April, Al Jazeera reported that after allegedly discussing the case publicly, Sulkowicz’s best friend was made by the college to write two “reflection papers,” one from her friend’s perspective and the other from the alleged rapist.” In April, Columbia security guards physically pushed back activists trying to silently hand out leaflets about the issue to prospective students.

The bathroom list activists, then, claim that they were pushed to posting the names as a last resort. A month earlier, a man whom Brown University student Lena Sclove accused of sexual assault had been named in a university newspaper.

Despite the university having found the man responsible of raping and twice choking Sclove, he is scheduled to return to campus after only a single full semester suspension. The same week as the guerrilla actions began at Columbia, students at Brown also scrawled a list, “Entitled Brown Survivors Speak,” with the names of five alleged campus assailants, following the example of Brown women 24 years ago.

Fierce debate erupted on online Columbia comment boards, after campus blogs posted redacted photos of the lists. The campus blog Bwog, for instance, claimed that it was “disturbed” by such “campus vigilante” efforts, but failed to disclose initially that one of its senior editors, who has since resigned, was named on the list.

The activists had anticipated the backlash. “I wasn’t surprised, because people tend to stick up for perpetrators more than survivors,” said one. “They consider rapists at elite schools like Columbia ‘just good guys that messed up’, and see the list as something that ruins their reputation. Their reputation becomes more important than the safety of other students.”

Columbia administration moved immediately to shut down the restrooms and wipe off the names, designating the markings “graffiti”, a categorisation which leaves open the possibility of criminal investigation under New York state law.

“No one has contacted me yet. I am very scared, though,” said one of the activists.

Not only am I scared because many people have not seen these names yet and these rapists will continue to harm my peers as long as they remain on campus, but I am also afraid that I will receive harsher punishment than any of the rapists on that list.”

“I hope people will realise that we will never be silenced,” said one. “We will continue to do what is necessary, and continue to take risks to keep ourselves and our community safe.” Some commenters on Bwog accused the activists of going “too far” with their action to name the alleged attackers. “I think the rapists on the list went too far,” one said.

by Education News
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via Behind Columbia’s ‘rape lists’: ‘When existing systems fail, what then?’ | Education |

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