Opinion | Columns

Sexual assault mishandling is symptom of larger epidemic of administrative failures

Updated at 11:25 a.m.

During finals last May, I met with my student group advisor to painstakingly fill out the forms for a $48 reimbursement. It should have been easy, but instead it involved me running up and down the secret staircase in Lerner, grabbing papers, and finding the right people. I was stressed out and couldn’t believe I was spending this time running around figuring out what to do to get my money back—which, incidentally, I paid because a store Columbia listed as accepting e-forms didn’t accept e-forms, as I found out when I went to pick up my student group order.

Suffice it to say, I found myself leaning on that secret Lerner staircase banister having a good ol’ cry. After not receiving a check, I met with my adviser in September. He didn’t know what had happened. We thought we’d had everything right in the submission. Perhaps they deducted the money from my tuition, but I haven’t found anything indicating that. Following a few weeks of emails and meetings, I gave up on the reimbursement—I didn’t have the time or energy to deal with it anymore.

Months later, I would find out that in fact the check did arrive at my house in the summer, while I was away. The envelope had no indication of what it was and my mother assumed it was a tuition correction, cashing it without thinking of mentioning it to me. While I’m glad to know the money made its way back to my house--and that Student Affairs has been working on improvements to student group finance, for instance by combining offices to eliminate the need to run up and down that Lerner staircase--that I still wasted so much time and anxiety over this, as there was no way for my advisor or me to know that the check had actually been sent, was silly and superfluous.

But getting 50 bucks back is absolutely nothing compared to a victim’s getting justice for a reported sexual assault. Like most students, I was shocked and horrified by Anna Bahr’s Blue and White piece “‘Accessible, Prompt, and Equitable?’ An Examination of Sexual Assault at Columbia.” I can almost understand Columbia’s mishandling of my (petty, when compared to tuition) reimbursement, but I always assumed the school would take infinitely more care when it came to something as utterly important to student safety as sexual assault. Instead, I saw a system startlingly harmful and uncaring.

Yet, I wonder why I was so surprised. If the University can’t handle something as simple as a reimbursement, why should I expect that it can handle sexual assault cases? After three and a half years, my fellow seniors and I have scores of tales regarding injustices committed by Columbia—frequent reassignment among academic advisers, monthlong wait times at Counseling and Psychological Services, broken heaters during a polar vortex, double-booked classrooms, falling ceilings, and so on. And a majority of these injustices end the same way: with the student getting fed up trying to work a system that won’t work with them, and giving up—or turning to the Fourth Estate.

I never thought my silly story of futilely working with the Student Affairs Central Business Office could ever parallel something this serious—and in no way do I mean to say that my inconvenience is on par with the experiences of the women interviewed in the Blue and White article—yet, it’s the same story over and over again, one endemic to Columbia: Even if you follow their rules to a tee, administrative offices will fail you.

In the cases Bahr investigated, three women followed Columbia’s procedure to present their cases of sexual assault to the proper administrative forces—namely, Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct—and they were, one after another, not taken care of. This may be the most shocking part of the article: The women did what they were supposed to do after going through horrific experiences, and still the school did not have their backs.

We are starting to see feeble improvements from the administration with regard to addressing sexual violence: a snazzy website and a perfunctory statement from President Bollinger’s office, both released in the past week. However, these came only after months of calls to action from a massive number of Columbia students and student groups. And truthfully, these improvements do not necessarily address the problems at hand. While the infrastructure is in place for dealing with sexual assault cases, the execution of the judiciary process is flawed. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for us to know whether future rulings become more just, even if we are granted “the disclosure of aggregate data” that Bollinger’s statement discusses.

The major message I (and many others) gleaned from the past several months of activism, and especially the Blue and White article, is that if, God forbid, I am attacked by a Columbia student on Columbia property, I cannot trust that Columbia will take care of me. While I thought that the systems in place for addressing serious safety threats would be more reliable than those for less pressing issues, now it’s evident that this lack of dependability is a widespread problem at all levels of the school. Unfortunately, this problem is likely here to stay—if it took six months of protesting to get a website and 200 words from our president’s office, what will it take for actual change?

In response to Bollinger's email:

While I'm glad that President Bollinger has finally spoken about sexual assault on campus, my worries are not near assuaged. To reiterate the end of the what I said initially, it took this amount of effort (and a hugely embarrassing article) just to get the school to agree to basic reviews and practices. While the three promises Bollinger makes are admirable, they do not necessarily prevent mishandling of judicial cases in practice—again, the infrastructure is in place, but is it well executed?  With the aggregate data, we can analyze the system, but as Anna Bahr said, "[r]evealing that sexual assault exists on campus through [numbers] is a good step, but not a deterrent." Now is not the time to assume the judicial system will improve because Bollinger said so. Instead, now that we have his attention, it is our responsibility to continue putting pressure on the school to ensure the rights and safety of ourselves and our classmates with a smooth, functioning, and fair process.

Alexandra Svokos is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing and economics. She is the former editor in chief of Bwog. Svocalizing runs alternate Wednesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that the author never received her reimbursement check. She has since learned that it was sent to her home over the summer. The column has been updated to reflect this fact. Spectator regrets the error.

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Anonymous posted on

If you are raped go to the NYPD. Rape is a very serious crime and you should not expect the University to handle it. It is not in the law enforcement business.

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Anonymous posted on

YES YES YES YES.

The administration's response is not an end in and of itself.

We need to see that the administration will make lasting change to its policies to ensure that the sorts of atrocious failings in the gender-based misconduct office will come to an end.

This campus is NOT safe and we need the administration to do something about, not just talk about doing something about it.

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Anonymous posted on

This post is just a little bit exaggerated, don't you think?

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Anonymous posted on

Most definitely it is not exaggerated. Thank you for asking.

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BW posted on

Miss Svokos,
Thank your for your column. It showed keen sense. Well written too. Hear, hear! Hurrah!

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