After the flurry of responses from administration and national media alike to recent writing and activism on campus surrounding sexual assault, we present the second installment of a two-part series by Anna Bahr, BC ’14 and The Blue and White‘s recently retired Managing Editor, who spent four months reporting on and writing these pieces.
The first installment of this series on sexual assault at Columbia told the stories of three students who independently filed against one alleged offender, Tom. These cases highlighted the investigative and disciplinary processes outlined in the University’s Gender-Based Misconduct Policy and the frustration of students who felt betrayed by what they considered compromised standards of professionalism, promptness, and diligence promised in the Policy. **TRIGGER WARNING FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT AND RAPE ON A COLLEGE CAMPUS**
The second half of the series focuses on additional University resources established to support alleged victims of “gender and sexual misconduct.” These services are part of a network of education and advocacy that help students navigate issues ranging from sexual consent to sexual assault.
But according to student leaders and assault survivors, these critical additions to the on-campus assault support system are fragile and often fall short of their goals. And when survivors go beyond counseling resources to seek sanctions against their assailants, the outcome rarely fits the expectation of the “complainant.”
The five alleged respondents whose identities were disclosed to me over the course of research for this series declined requests for comment. Columbia officials denied my interview requests. Thus, this story is written solely with the cooperation of the alleged survivors. The names of all students involved have been changed to protect their privacy.
“Consent is sexy. Sex without consent is sexual assault. The Consent Campaign is a student-developed effort to change the way college students think and talk about intimate activity…The message of the campaign is that consent makes for healthier, safer, and sexier intimate interactions.” — Consent Campaign, Columbia University’s Sexual Violence Response Website.
The Consent Campaign is a student-developed curriculum used to educate all incoming Columbia students on the do’s and don’ts of healthy, consensual sexual interactions. Its message? Consent can be creative. As one promotional poster states, “Asking for consent can be as hot, creative and as sexy as you make it.” The program should have kept Catherine, CC ‘13, safer on campus.
But Catherine was raped by her “Consent Educator” in the fall of 2009, a week before her first class at Columbia. It was the first time she had sex.
He was a junior at Columbia and a leader of “Consent 101” (also known as “Keeping Sex Sexy” or “Consent is Sexy”), a mandatory workshop for freshmen students. Catherine never learned his name.
One night during the New Student Orientation Program (NSOP)—a weeklong get-to-know-you melee of ice cream socials and walking tours of Morningside Heights for incoming freshmen—Catherine went to a local bar, Campo, with a group of her new friends. She was very drunk. She noticed her Consent Educator standing at the bar and went over to chat.
They kissed at the bar and he asked her to leave with him. She remembers being surprised that he was able to walk so easily—she was stumbling and leaning heavily on his arm as they returned to his home, a fraternity brownstone on 114th St.
“Knowingly engaging in sexual activity with someone who is incapacitated (by alcohol or drug use, unconsciousness, disability, or other forms of helplessness) does not constitute consent and is a violation of policy. Incapacitation is a state where one cannot make a rational, reasonable decision because they lack the ability to understand their decision. Incapacity can result from a person’s disability, involuntary physical constraint, sleep, or consumption of alcohol, or and [sic] other drugs.” — Gender-Based Misconduct Policy, Columbia University
Catherine doesn’t remember how the sex began. She was too drunk to physically fight him off, but as she came back to consciousness it was clear to her: This wasn’t what she wanted.
After the intercourse ended, according to Catherine, he forcibly inserted his penis into her mouth. “He really pushed it in my face. I was too drunk to even really move my head,” Catherine recalls.
She remembers saying goodbye to him and walking out alone. She doesn’t remember how she got home.
“When I woke up the next morning, I thought it was my fault,” said Catherine. “Even though it was definitely against my will—there was never a doubt in my mind [about] that—I knew better. I remember thinking that I only had to get through two more years of seeing him on campus.”
She didn’t pursue sanctions against her alleged assaulter. “It was freshman year. I wasn’t pregnant; I didn’t have an STD. I wanted [the assault] to just disappear from my brain. I wasn’t going to go through a trial with an upperclassman dude during my first semester at college.”
Catherine’s reluctance to pursue sanctions is common among assault survivors. A recent report released by the White House Council on Women and Girls found that sexual violence is critically underreported: only 12 percent of college sexual assault survivors report their rape to law enforcement. Jarringly, the same study reported that, of the 7 percent of college men who owned up to committing rape or attempted rate, 63 percent of them admitted to multiple offenses, with an average of six rapes each.
This is the first time Catherine has shared her story.
Catherine’s Consent 101 leader and alleged assailant would have attended a workshop, complete with an interactive script, that outlined goals:
“First-years will learn verbal communication skills to help them participate in healthy consensual sexual activities. Additionally, they will learn about the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center and Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct.” — Columbia Health Sexual Violence Response: Consent Workshop
To become Consent Educators, students must be in good disciplinary and academic standing with their undergraduate college. Approximately 80 students are accepted as educators and must commit to three full days of training with Sexual Violence Response—with the bonus incentive of getting to move into their dorms a week early. The basic application vets potential leaders with innocuous questions such as, “Why are you interested in volunteering for [Sexual Violence Response]?” “What skills do you bring?” and “What do you believe contributes to sexual violence on campus?”
Sarah Weinstein, CC ‘16 and a current Consent Educator, thinks the move-in perk undermines the seriousness of the program: “There are definitely a lot of people who do it to move in early and because it’s fun to be on campus during NSOP—I don’t think [those students] think of these issues any differently than before [their training]…If these students aren’t going to get that much training, [the Sexual Violence Response staff] should do a much more careful job [choosing] who leads the workshop.”
Abby Porter, CC ‘17 and Columbia College Freshman Representative, is starting a task force to reform the program through the Columbia College Student Council (CCSC). She sees its content as fundamentally flawed: “It needs to be more serious. Students are encouraged to give funny, flirty examples of how to give consent—like, Harry Potter-themed answers. You’re given candy as a prize for giving creative ideas. Candy does not help to maintain a serious atmosphere.”
During the 2012 workshop, imaginative proposals from freshmen ranged from, “Suck me, beautiful” to “Want to play with my pussycat?”, according to a student who participated in the program and recorded his experience for Bwog.
Situations presented to students to illustrate consent are distinctly low-stakes and non-sexual. Consent educators define terms such as “sexual assault” and “consent,” but examples of non-consensual situations can seem like lessons in appropriate social decorum rather than instruction in healthy sexual contact.
The Consent Workshop script demonstrates coercion with examples like:
A guy approaches a girl after class and asks her if she’s going out that night. The girl says no. He keeps pressing her and eventually she replies yes, she’ll go out (“Okay, I guess I could for a little.”).
“You would never report that as coercion. It might be annoying and impolite, but it doesn’t relate to sexual consent,” says Sarah.
“We envision the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center as a safe place for survivors of sexual violence to speak about their experience and to break the silence and the censorship that are tacitly and explicitly encouraged by our media and culture…We believe in the right of survivors to define their own needs, and we are here to support survivors at various times and throughout the healing process.” — “Values and History,” Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center
In the fall of 2013, two incoming freshmen approached their pre-orientation program leader, Lisa, CC ‘15, with details of a disturbing incident. A new friend of theirs, Alexander, CC ‘17, also an incoming student to Columbia, had told them a story the night before they thought Lisa needed to hear.
According to the students, Alexander had been very drunk. A female pre-freshman student walked him back to his room from the party they attended. She started having sex with him as he faded in and out of consciousness. When he realized what was happening, Alexander pushed her away from him and made her leave the room.
Alexander was clearly upset and confused, but expressed no interest in reporting his alleged assault. Out of concern for Alexander, his new friends approached their pre-orientation leader to express their alarm.
Just days earlier, Lisa had participated in a mandatory training for orientation leaders about sexual assault. Rosalie Siler, Assistant Director of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, and La’Shawn Rivera, Director of the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center (RC/AVSC) led the training and outlined potential scenarios student leaders might encounter. They explained to Lisa and her co-leaders that, if freshmen in their groups sought confidential counseling for assault, orientation leaders should contact the RC/AVSC.
The RC/AVSC is the first number listed in Columbia’s directory of resources available “24 hours a day, 7 days a week” in its Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students.
Unfortunately, Lisa discovered that “24 hours a day” was a relative phrase.
Remembering Siler and Rivera’s instructions, Lisa called the RC/AVSC to ask for guidance in how best to help Alexander. She was connected to a recording that instructed her to call the NYPD in case of emergency. Lisa realized: Columbia’s primary confidential assault resource center was closed during NSOP in order to train the student volunteers who make up the bulk of its staff each year.
“I was trying to get a sense of what the next steps were to take and how best to communicate with this student,” Lisa said. She knew she needed to proceed with extreme sensitivity, since Alexander hadn’t trusted her with his experience directly. “I was really angry and really scared because there was a student who was not well, and I didn’t even know the extent of it. But I knew something violent had happened to him in his first few nights at Columbia. I didn’t know how to help him and the people whose job it was to support him and to make him safe weren’t there.”
Lisa did the only other thing she could think of. She contacted the Residential Programs staffer on call, Deborah Pawlikowski, Assistant Director of the Office of Residential Housing. Lisa said Pawlikowski seemed upset and baffled by her predicament—and entirely surprised that the RC/AVSC was closed. Pawlikowski’s understanding of sexual assault resources felt as limited as Lisa’s own. “She was doing what she could,” said Lisa, “but she doesn’t work with sexual violence. She works in residential programming. She just didn’t know how to help.”
Pawlikowski and Lisa stayed up late into the night, trading phone calls and frantically trying to assemble helpful resources for Alexander, should he want them. Eventually, Pawlikowski was able to secure a block of appointments at Columbia’s Psychological Services for a window of time during which Alexander (or any students and leaders in need) could seek guidance help.
Lisa didn’t feel comfortable approaching Alexander with this option—after all, he hadn’t told her about his experience. Instead, she enlisted the help of another student leader, who was closer to Alexander, to alert him to the temporarily available services. Alexander declined.
“NSOP is when students are the most vulnerable they will ever be on this campus,” Lisa said. “Some of these students come from really far away and they have no connection or support system in this school or city. Imagine if they hadn’t been in a pre-orientation program! In a situation like this, they would be utterly alone.”
“A QUESTION OF RESOURCES”
In 2011, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights published a “Dear Colleague” letter, directing schools at all levels to put in place a system of dealing with assault, or lose federal funding. Columbia tightened its policy: all faculty and staff are now required to report instances of harassment and assault to Student Services, regardless of the survivor’s wishes. If a student approaches his professor and tells her he was raped, she must report it to Columbia.
The RC/AVSC serves as one of the few on-campus services that guarantees confidentiality between survivors of sexual assault and student volunteers trained to support them emotionally. Of course, that confidentiality could be compromised by the Center’s location at Barnard, which requires CC/SEAS/GS students to show their ID and disclose their destination to Public Safety when they enter the building.
The Center has three full-time, salaried employees: Rivera; Melissa Tihenen, Clinical Advisor; and Louisa Versaw, Administrative Project Coordinator. It is staffed primarily by student volunteers or “Peer Advocates,” who receive 50 hours of training in order to provide counseling support. Under the supervision of professional clinicians, these students “help survivors make informed decisions about reporting and disciplinary options,” according to the RC/AVS website.
Program models that pair peer support with confidentiality are often lauded as successful student resources. Peer advocates presumably understand and empathize with the social context in which assault occurs in a more direct way than a professionally-trained psychologist or counselor. Talking about assault with other students presents a potentially appealing alternative to consulting with an adult. While at many universities, peer counselors do not have legal privilege, meaning a subpoena in court would legally obligate them to reveal their knowledge of the survivor’s experience, Columbia extends total confidentiality to its student advocates.
But Lisa believes that students’ critical health and safety concerns should be left in the hands of trained professionals—not other students. “Why are there so few professionals hired to do this job? What happens when the student volunteers are busy and stressed with homework and midterms? I admire and respect them but I don’t think it’s fair that they should be solely responsible for managing this. This is a question of resources.”
“THEY HAD MADE A BIG MISTAKE”
“Coercion: Unreasonable pressure for sexual activity. When someone makes it clear that they do not want to engage in sexual behavior, or that they do not want to go beyond a certain point of sexual interaction, continued pressure beyond that point can be considered coercive.” — Gender-Based Misconduct Policy, Columbia University
Two days after her alleged assault, Elizabeth, CC ‘16, took photos of her mouth and neck. Swollen and bruised purple and black, the imprints of Carl’s teeth remained on her body for a week. She hid her neck behind a scarf and carefully applied dark lipstick. When people asked, she made up a story about her strange habit of biting her lip in her sleep. She couldn’t stand to look in the mirror.
It happened on a Friday night of her freshman year in November 2012. Elizabeth had decided to stay in to catch up on work. Around 11 p.m. she heard a knock on her door. She opened it to find Carl, CC ‘16, who lived next door, leaning in her doorway. He seemed a little drunk.
Carl and Elizabeth were friendly—his room was a social hub for the floor. It didn’t seem odd when Carl asked her if she wanted to come over to smoke pot and watch TV. She was already in sweatpants and a T-shirt, ready for bed, but said yes, she’d come hang out.
After shuffling around in his room for a few moments, Carl told Elizabeth he couldn’t find any weed. She began to feel uneasy, but told herself not to be silly—this was just a kid on her hall, a classmate. Carl asked Elizabeth to lay down with him. “Why?” she asked. “I want to cuddle. Come on,” he said and pulled her by her waist so they were spooning. “I was basically lying there trying to pretend nothing was wrong and trying to think of how to get out of it,” remembers Elizabeth.
“Cuddling” quickly escalated to kissing. Carl climbed on top of Elizabeth and began trying to take off her shirt. “Come on. Promise me this won’t be awkward,” Elizabeth remembers Carl saying. He was painfully sucking on and biting her mouth and neck. It hurt. A lot. He tried to put his hands under her sweatpants. “I told him I wasn’t having sex with him and he started being really mean, telling me I was the worst and reminding me about all the girls who would want to do this with him,” she said.
She got up to leave. He asked her for a kiss goodbye.
When she returned to her room, she deadbolted her door and looked in the mirror. “When I saw how swollen my lip was, it really hit me. I looked like I had been abused. That’s when I started crying,” Elizabeth said. She decided to take a cold shower, to try and bring the swelling down. Carl was in the hallway as she made her way to the bathroom, clothed only in her bathrobe. He walked alongside her, asking her what she was doing. When she left the bathroom, he was still there, waiting.
Carl began to apologize. “I told him I didn’t want to hear it,” Elizabeth said. When they got to her room, he walked in—without permission. “[Carl] walked over to my bed and asked me where the lightswitch was, trying to turn off the lights. He was like, ‘I just want to talk to you.’ He was in my space. I started screaming at him to get out of my room.”
At around three in the morning, Elizabeth could hear Carl having sex with someone through the wall. “I was so scared for whoever that was,” Elizabeth said. “It was the most horrifying thing to listen to.”
Elizabeth’s RA wasn’t on the floor that night.
“Complainant’s Rights: To be treated with respect, dignity, and sensitivity throughout the process…To a prompt and thorough investigation of the allegations…To be notified, in writing, of the case resolution—including the outcome of any appeal.” — Gender-Based Misconduct Policy, Columbia University
Elizabeth reported her alleged assault to her RA the next morning. Within two weeks, her report had made it through Residential Life to Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. She received an email from Melissa Rooker, then the Deputy Title IX Coordinator; they set a meeting for November 28. (Rooker is now an Associate Provost, Title IX Coordinator and Section 504 Compliance Officer.) Elizabeth filed her assault under non-consensual sexual contact.
Rooker put her in touch with Rosalie Siler, then a Title IX Investigator, who compiled Elizabeth’s investigative report, which included interviews with Elizabeth and at least two witnesses. All of the interviews were recorded with handwritten notes.
By December 7, Carl was moved from their shared dorm to a new residence hall, as an interim measure in place until the resolution of the case. A no-contact directive between the students was also put in place.
Because Carl admitted responsibility, the case bypassed the judiciary hearing panel (used to assess responsibility when students deny breaching the Gender-Based Misconduct Policy) and was presented directly to the Dean of Student Affairs of Carl’s school, then Kevin Shollenberger.
Elizabeth received her case’s initial sanctioning decision on March 5, 2013—four months after she first filed her assault with Student Services. Carl was put on Disciplinary Probation until December 2014; his access to all residential housing was suspended until the spring 2014 semester. His return to housing was contingent upon “a detailed reflection paper.”
Carl appealed the sanction, hoping to regain access to a specific residence hall—the center of his social life. Out of a sense of fairness, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the appellate Dean, James Valentini, supporting Carl’s request to gain access to that single hall.
Valentini denied Carl’s appeal, upholding the sanctions originally issued by Shollenberger, and specifically noted that he was “Upholding the housing suspension without modification, which includes a complete access restriction from the residential community.”
“I was really happy with the original sanction. My main goal was that he would be freaked out enough not to do it again to another girl. I also didn’t want him living next door to me anymore. There needed to be some kind of consequence. I wanted him to be shaken up,” Elizabeth said. She was satisfied.
That is, until Carl was moved into her dorm the following fall—a full semester before he was to have access to any residential buildings.
On September 4, 2013 she received an email from Siler with the subject head: “Important Update.” When they finally sat down a week later, Siler informed Elizabeth that Carl was living in the dormitory in which Elizabeth had chosen to spend the new academic year—on the floor directly above Elizabeth’s own.
“She didn’t seem to realize that moving him back into housing went against the original sanction. She was just asking me if I was uncomfortable with him being in my dorm again. She told me they could move him if I wanted,” remembered Elizabeth. “I was like, ‘Um, no. I am definitely not comfortable with it.’ But also, he’s not supposed to be allowed into housing. That was part of his punishment.”
Elizabeth was frustrated that this decision had been left up to her. He had already been sanctioned; she thought it was over. How could it now be her responsibility to choose whether to disrupt his life and remove him from the dormitory? More importantly, after his appeal to regain access to certain residential buildings was denied, how was it possible that he had been moved back into her dorm?
Siler went back to look at the terms of Carl’s sanction. Elizabeth was correct. He had been suspended from entering all residential housing until the spring 2014 semester.
“She apologized to me profusely. They had made such a big mistake,” Elizabeth said. “I think she felt really bad. But now I’m left wondering whether [moving Carl into her dorm] was pure irresponsibility or whether [Student Services] re-decided the sanction and I just wasn’t informed. Could it seriously have just fallen through the cracks?”
Carl was relocated to another dormitory. He retained access to residential housing for the duration of that semester.
“I HAVE NO WORDS”
In November of her freshman year at Columbia, Sofia woke up, still in her pajamas, with Chris allegedly on top of her, touching her breasts and moving his hands over her vagina. Rolling over onto her side, in a fetal position “where he couldn’t access anything,” she hid from Chris, horrified, and waited until he fell back asleep. When she was certain he was sleeping, Sofia snuck away from her bedroom and spent the rest of the night roaming the halls of her dormitory, hoping Chris would be gone by the time she returned.
Sofia, CC ‘16, and Chris, CC ‘16, were extremely close. She had a boyfriend at the time; Chris was dating one of Sofia’s friends. She saw no romantic ambiguity in their friendship. They had been up late studying and Sofia had invited Chris to sleep over, so he wouldn’t have to walk to his dorm in the middle of the night.
Two weeks later, Sofia came home to find a typed letter and a copy of David Foster Wallace’s This is Water resting outside her door. It was from Chris and began: “I’m sorry.”
The letter continued for a full page, as Chris attempted to account for his actions. “The only explanation I can fathom is I was sleepy,” he wrote. “Sleepy enough to forget that the attractive female lying in bed with me was not only not sexually involved with me, but a human being whom I was hurting and disrespecting…”
Chris went on to apologize, writing that, though he felt confused by the nature of their intimate friendship, he realized he was responsible for hurting Sofia.
“…if I had heard that a different guy did it, I would have immediately (and probably rightfully so) hated him because he is some sort of perverted, sick and evil guy who mistreats women,” Chris wrote.
Furious that Chris had blamed the assault on being tired, Sofia responded with a handwritten note that she said made clear “this was my last communication with him ever. It was very angry. I described what he had put me through and that I was done with him,” she said.
At first, Sofia had trouble deciding whether to report her assault. “It’s harder when the guy isn’t a caricature of a rapist,” Sofia said. “What are you supposed to do when it’s your friend?” But as an activist, she felt hypocritical for not reporting her assault. “I preach about this kind of stuff all the time. If I didn’t report it, I wasn’t the person I thought I was.”
In February, she contacted Chris for the last time, telling him that she was reporting him to Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. He responded with a flurry of pleading text messages.
“[The texts] said things like, ‘Take my money, have your friends beat me up, just don’t report me,’” recalled Sofia. “He was worried about his academic standing. He didn’t want this to follow him. That made me even angrier. That made me want to report all the more.”
“Following the review of the investigative report, the respondent will be given the opportunity to respond to the alleged violation of policy in the following ways: 1) No response; 2) Not Responsible; or 3) Responsible. If the respondent accepts responsibility, the Dean of Students of the respondent’s school will be notified and will determine the sanction based on the evidence provided in the investigative report and documentation.” — Gender-Based Misconduct Policy, Columbia University
Jilleian Session-Stackhouse, one of Columbia’s neutral, third-party Title IX Investigators, collected both Sofia and Chris’ letters, as well as copies of their text message exchange in her investigative report. The evidence amply demonstrated Chris’ complicity in Sofia’s assault. He responded to his alleged violation of the Misconduct Policy by claiming responsibility.
After her initial interview with Sessions-Stackhouse, who recorded their conversation by hand, and helping to collect evidence, Sofia decided to opt out of further participation in the disciplinary process. She remembers being offered the opportunity to include a written statement, which she decided against. “I wasn’t in the right state at the time—it was all just too much,” she said.
On April 12, Sofia received the outcome of the disciplinary proceeding: Chris would be allowed to finish his spring semester on Disciplinary Probation. His access to residence halls and university-affiliated brownstones would be restricted. He would be suspended from Columbia for the fall 2013 semester, eligible to return in the spring of 2014, at which point he would remain on Disciplinary Probation until May 31, 2014. The sanctions also directed Chris to participate in an unspecified “educational sanction.”
While the no-contact issued between Chris and Sofia remained in place indefinitely, Chris’ access to residence halls would be restored upon his return to campus in January 2014.
The Gender-Based Misconduct Policy and disciplinary measures were followed to a T. But in Sofia’s mind, the sanctions did not match the severity of the offense.
“It’s fucked,” Sofia said. “I hoped that he would be expelled. I assumed he would be. I counted on that. He admitted what he did. I shouldn’t have to see him around campus at all. I have no words.”
The rationale used to assign sanctions to students is not made public. A student volunteer’s secret recording of a training session for the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center on January 16, 2014 documents Amy Zavadil, Barnard’s Title IX Coordinator, explaining that decisionmaking is partially based on “a rubric outlining what precedent has been and illustrating both the type of behavior and the potential outcome [of the hearing]…”
A student can be heard in the recording asking if student volunteers can see the rubric to better advise survivors looking for insight into the hearing process through which they might file their case: “It’s private,” Zavadil replies.
Zavadil also discussed cases in which the University and the survivor’s understandings differ. “We are holding individuals accountable in the most conservative way possible…a survivor [disappointed in the outcome of her case] is going to say, ‘I feel violated,’ but the process wasn’t able to find that person responsible,” she said. “It’s a touchy situation. Just because someone isn’t found responsible doesn’t mean that [the misconduct] didn’t happen.”
She goes on to explain the most common consequences for students found responsible of sexual assault according to the Gender-Based Misconduct Policy:
“The typical outcome is some level of suspension, in some cases expulsion…” Zavadil continues on the recording. “The intention is that someone who engaged in a sexual assault needs to be separated from the community for the protection of the community. How that separation is carried out is left up to the individual case.”
During a hearing panel on the Gender-Based Misconduct Policy held on November 19, 2013, Rosalie Siler made clear that, while complainants might express their preferences in sanctioning for alleged attackers, their input has no weight in deciding the level of discipline for respondents found responsible. Of twelve alleged assault survivors interviewed for this series, some hoped for sanctions as minimal as participating in a consent education program; others believed the sanctions the respondent in their case received were not nearly serious enough.
None of the alleged offenders detailed for background or profile in this series were expelled.
—Additional reporting by Naomi Cohen, CC ’15 and Alexander Pines, CC ’16.