Updated, April 25, 3:26 a.m.
After months of advocating for improvements of sexual assault policy, 23 Columbia and Barnard students filed federal complaints against alleged violations of Title IX, Title II, and the Clery Act on Thursday morning.
The allegations in the 100-page complaint included that the University treats survivors and alleged perpetrators unequally, perpetrators are allowed to remain on campus, students are discouraged from reporting sexual assault, LGBTQ students face discrimination in counseling, advising, adjudication, and Greek life, students do not receive accomodations based on mental health disibilities, and sanctions for perpetrators are too lenient.
A University spokesman said on Thursday that administrators were unable to comment on the allegations of the federal complaint.
“Filing now is a way of saying we’re not going to back down,” Marybeth Seitz-Brown, CC ’14 and one of the students who filed the complaint, said. “This is the last resort—it’s time to get the law involved.”
Seitz-Brown said that she wants to see administrations take action to reform the way the University adjudicates sexual assault and the resources available to students.
“We’ve seen two town halls and a couple of emails, and as a survivor and an ally to survivors, that’s not enough,” Seitz-Brown said. “That’s not enough to make me feel safe. We’re afraid, to be honest, that when the summer comes, that’ll be an excuse not to follow through on these promises.”
Seitz-Brown said that “the thing to highlight here is how much this is not just about sexual violence but mental health as well.”
Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, CC ’15 and one of the students who signed the complaint, said that filing a complaint wasn't their first choice, but that they felt they had exhausted every other avenue.
“We’ve had meetings, we’ve done activism, we’ve been seeking counseling, and nothing has worked,” Ridolfi-Starr said. “We’re desperate. We have no other option.”
Ridolfi-Starr added that students have started a support group to discuss their stories and increase awareness for the issue on campus.
Rakhi Agrawal, BC ’14 and one of the students who filed the complaint, said that she was placed on disciplinary and academic probation because she “was a mental health liability,” according to the release.
“I don’t think they [the administration] were taking us seriously enough,” Agrawal said about the decision to file. “The University is going to have to take action. This is a really good time for the University to be honest and lay all its cards out on table, to really work with the complainants.”
“The trauma of sexual assault is something only a survivor can understand, and that’s where the University can offer the most tactile support,” Agrawal added. “The fact that they haven’t done that is a large part of why the system is so flawed as it is right now.”
The release also includes an anecdote from a transgender student who alleged that the University failed to make academic accommodations promised under Title IX “on the basis of their gender identity.”
The student said that there was a “general ignorance and hostility towards my gender identity … even [the] dismissal of my rape because it didn’t fit the normative ‘boy-rapes-girl’ narrative.”
A self-identified queer/trans Columbia College student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that xe hoped the complaint will encourage more queer and trans victims to come forth and share their stories.
“As queer/trans survivor, I felt there were a lot of intersections of my various identities that the University wasn’t prepared to handle or was hostile towards accommodating,” xe said. The “normative narrative of rape is very much cis-hetero man rapes cis-hetero woman. These are narratives that get prioritized—the closer your rape gets to the story, the more it gets prioritized or the more they think it hurts, and that’s as far from the truth as possible.”
The student said that of particular concern was the lack of specialized psychological staff for queer and trans students.
“Mental health problems disproportionately affect queer and trans people,” the student said. “There’s one person at CPS with extensive experience in queer rape and there are astronomical wait times to see her. You could wait a month.”
“Students should need to do whatever they need to do to feel safe,” said Sejal Singh, CC ’15 and the former president of the Columbia University Democrats and the vice president for policy-elect of Columbia College Student Council. “Hopefully this will push the University to take desperately needed urgent action towards those goals.”
Singh noted that there has been a wave of Title IX suits at universities in recent years. In 2011, 16 students filed a complaint against Yale. There have been similar cases at the University of Connecticut and Northwestern University.
“There’s a consensus emerging that universities aren’t doing enough,” Singh said. “This is a nationwide problem.”
“I really want to emphasize that the University must continue meeting with students and working towards solutions,” while the complaint is being considered, Singh said. “These issues affect students on campus every single day and we can’t afford to wait until the suit is resolved. We need to expand resources and improve adjudication proceedings as soon as absolutely possible.”
At the town hall on sexual assault policy in March, students asked whether the University was compliant with Title IX and the Clery Act.
“If you look nationwide, I don’t think anybody is sure they’re Title IX compliant,” Michael Dunn, deputy Title IX coordinator and the director of investigations, said in response.
A University statement issued Thursday said Columbia will continue working in the coming months to make clear that “sexual assault and gender misconduct are unacceptable, including on college and university campuses.”
“We have been working with students, faculty and staff to make that emphatically clear on our campus and have already taken the first of a series of significant new measures dedicated to preventing such sexual misconduct, supporting survivors, and improving adjudication of these painful cases,” the statement said. “That process of action and reform will continue in the months ahead because we are committed to protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of every member of our university community.”
Check back for updates.
Correction: A previous version of this story quoted Sejal Singh referring to the complaint as a lawsuit. Legally, the terms are distinct. The part of Singh’s quote referring to a lawsuit has been removed. Additionally, an earlier version of this story said Zoe Ridolfi-Starr asked the question about the University’s Title IX compliance at the March town hall. Spectator regrets the errors.