The spring semester is winding down at colleges across the country, but at Columbia University debate over the mishandling of sexual assault cases is gaining momentum — most recently making its way onto the walls of campus bathrooms.
Last week a list of alleged “sexual assault violators on campus” written in marker pen popped up in a women’s bathroom at the university’s main campus in Manhattan. Campus facilities reportedly removed the text, which it qualified as graffiti, within 24 hours.
Columbia’s student-run blog, the Lion, published a photo of the list with the names blacked out. The Lion’s editor, Sean Augustine, told VICE News that staff had determined that at least three of the individuals had been punished through university judicial proceedings for sexual misconduct and were back on campus.
The list then appeared on bathroom walls across campus in at least three different incidents. Most recently, two lists showed up on Tuesday in a bathroom at the Butler Library, and flyers with the same information were also found in library and hall bathrooms this week.
So far the people who wrote the lists have remained anonymous and it remains unclear if they are coming from the same source. Notably, the first list appeared to have different handwriting for the each of the names, while subsequent lists appear to all be in the same style.
Jake Hershman, the publisher of another campus blog called Bwog, told VICE News that there have been mixed reactions about this approach. Hershman said some view this as an improper approach to the problem of sexual assault, while others see it as a survivors’ prerogative to do what they see fit.
Regardless, the general view on campus is that the university is not doing enough to address the issue. The bathroom “graffiti” incident is just the latest development in student action against the university’s handling of sexual attacks.
Hershman said sexual assault on campus has been an issue for students for some time. The student body's focus really shifted, however, after campus magazine the Blue and White published a two-part feature in January about victims of sexual violence and harassment on campus, highlighting how their cases were dealt with by Columbia.
'This is not a problem unique to Columbia, in general, sexual assault is a problem and universities for the most part aren’t handling it well.'
“Comments got more and more tense and people are fed up with waiting for something to happen,” Hershman said.
According to Hershman, a lot of frustration stems from perceived lenient punishments through the university judicial process. At Columbia, punishment for charges like rape, groping, and harassment can range from a written warning to a semester suspension to expulsion. “It’s ridiculous that a rapist can be suspended for a semester,” Hershman said.
Columbia says it has made changes to investigation policies. The university has also announced plans to implement more freshman training and education programs. Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, has also spoken out about the need for increased transparency. But these efforts have not been enough for the student body.
“No one wants to think when sexual assault happens on campus that the school’s response is insufficient,” Augustine said.
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On April 24, this dissatisfaction became more evident when 23 students from Columbia and Barnard College filed a federal Title IX complaint against the university for its alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus.
Title IX is a landmark act in the 1972 Education Amendments that guarantees gender equity in any federally funded educational program. Its claim to fame is in access to sports, yet it can be applied to areas like career education, standardized testing, and sexual harassment.
The students’ complaint specifically highlights violations of Title IX, Title II, and the Clery Act. Title II is part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in public accommodations such as hotels or restaurants. The Clery Act is specific to campus crime and requires universities to report and disclose information about incidents on their premises.
'Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses.'
This filing alleges that the university’s judicial system does not have strict enough punishment for perpetrators of sexual assault. It also slams mental health considerations available on campus.
“We’ve seen two town halls and a couple of emails, and as a survivor and an ally to survivors, that’s not enough,” Marybeth Seitz-Brown, one of the complainants in the filing and a senior at the university told the Columbia Spectator. “That’s not enough to make me feel safe.”
This is just the latest Title IX complaint filed against universities for their handling of sexual assault. Since 2011, similar complaints have been submitted by students at Yale University, University of North Carolina (UNC), and Vanderbilt, as well as a host of other schools across the country.
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“This is not a problem unique to Columbia, in general, sexual assault is a problem and universities for the most part aren’t handling it well,” Annie Clark, one of the lead complainants in the 2013 UNC filing and a co-founder of the organization End Rape on Campus (EROC), told VICE News.
When Clark and fellow complainant Andrea Pino began their process, they decided to fight the issue using Title IX because they wouldn’t need a lawyer to file their complaint with the Department of Education.
“Students simply don’t know that Title IX guarantees equal education free of sexual assault,” Pino, who just finished her senior year at UNC, told VICE News. “The law was written for us, even if it wasn’t written by us.”
She said that the effects on a survivor can lead them to drop out of school, develop mental health issues or feel generally unsafe on campus — all threatening their right to an equal education.
Since Clark and Pino navigated their case on their own they have started helping students file complaints at other universities, including the group at Columbia, through EROC.
“The wave has really gotten so big. It’s not surprising — there’s something about taking back the law and about empowering those that didn’t have that knowledge,” said Pino.
Even the White House has taken on the issue. In January the Obama administration launched a task force to protect students against sexual assault. At the end of April, it issued recommendations for colleges to address the issue through a 20-page report.
“Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses,” Vice President Joe Biden said during a White House event on April 29.
Clark sees this national attention as a sign of a growing movement. She says they are seeing progress, even if it has been slow.
“It’s incredible the White House is taking on this issue and the fact that they’re even listening is a great first step,” she said. “I think that with the number of complaints, the number of survivors, we’ve hit this critical mass that can no longer be ignored.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB