After several truly infuriating accounts of the Columbia administration mishandling and neglecting sexual assault reports became public, the University pledged to clean up its act. But, as is so often and so alarmingly the case, this seems to have just been a PR smokescreen: the administration's first concern was salvaging its reputation, not the health and safety of its students.
In response, 23 Columbia students have filed a federal complaint alleging violations of Title IX, Title II and the Clery Act. Title IX protects students from gender-based discrimination, which includes sexual assault and harassment on campus; Title II protects them from discrimination on the basis of disability. The group alleges numerous violations — including but not limited to "administrators discouraging survivors from formally reporting, LGBTQ students facing discrimination in counseling, advising, adjudication, and Greek life, serial offenders remaining on campus, inadequate disciplinary sanctions, and discrimination against survivors, denied accommodations based on mental health disabilities."
In an article for Columbia's The Blue and White published in January, student Anna Bahr interviewed three sexual assault survivors, all of whom were assaulted by the same man. All of their cases were mishandled horrifically: one victim, who was anally raped, has her testimony called into question by a "specially trained panelist" who said he didn't "understand how it's possible to have anal sex without using lubrication first." (Uhhh, maybe because the victim was forcibly penetrated against her will?) Another suffered from depression in the aftermath of her assault/subsequent botched investigation and received Incompletes in half of her classes as a result. The perpetrator was never punished, even though the administration knew he was a serial offender.
More students have since come forward with similar horror stories: one survivor, Rakhi Agrawal, says she was on disciplinary and academic probation at the time of her assault because the school considered her a mental health liability. After it occurred, she was afraid to seek counseling because she didn't want to risk being suspended or expelled. She told Youngist, "I was desperate. I tried to kill myself. I needed the support and protection of my Barnard community – but instead they put me on disciplinary probation for my suicide attempt."
Columbia's ineptitude at handling its student's mental health issues is hardly exceptional — colleges nationwide have an abysmal track record at doing so — however, the decision to file a Title II complaint alongside Title IX and the Clery Act is. In doing this, Columbia students are holding their administration accountable not only for its deeply inadequate response to sexual assaults, but also for its utter inability to provide appropriate accommodations for those students who suffer mental health trauma in the aftermath of sexual violence. "Sexual violence and mental health are inextricably linked," Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a lead complainant in the filing, told Youngist. "By ignoring, denying, and discriminating against survivors who express mental health care needs, we cannot fully support them."
Marybeth Seitz-Brown, another complainant, says that the filing was a result of the administration not taking survivor concerns seriously enough. "We've seen two town halls and a couple of emails, and as a survivor and an ally to survivors, that's not enough," she told the Columbia Spectator. "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." The hope is that the federal suit will galvanize Columbia into action and turn the administration's empty promises into something actually efficacious.
"For me personally, filing is a way to force administrators to take immediate action to making campus safer," said an anonymous complainant. "But it's just one step for us: I want to see us meaningfully talking about how our communities excuse and enable violence and how we respond to and support survivors in addition to all the bureaucratic and procedural changes that need to happen."
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