"Accessible, Prompt and Equitable"?
An examination of sexual assault at Columbia
The controversy over Columbia University’s handling of sexual assault has already hit the mainstream media. But the experiences of assault survivors have yet to be illuminated. This is the first installment of a two-part series sharing their stories and examining Columbia’s judiciary hearing process.
Trigger Warning for Sexual Assault and Rape on a College Campus.
The three alleged respondents whose identities were disclosed to me over the course of research for this series did not respond to requests for comment. Columbia officials denied my interview requests. Thus, this story is written solely with the cooperation of the accusers. The names of all students involved have been changed to protect their privacy.
This two-part article is based primarily on interviews conducted over four months with ten Columbia and Barnard students who allegedly suffered sexual violence or harassment on campus during academic years ranging from 2011-2012 to 2013-14. Of these ten men and women, six chose to report their assaults to the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, as infractions of Columbia’s Gender-Based Misconduct Policy (PDF). Of those six students, two complaints were carried through the entire judicial hearing process to find the alleged assaulter responsible. Neither of the individuals found in violation of the policy was expelled.
This piece is not intended to evaluate the decisionmaking of Columbia’s hearing panels or assess the nature of the policy itself. Instead, it examines the degree to which Columbia fulfilled the procedural expectations outlined in its own Gender-Based Misconduct Policy according to assaulted students who turned to the University for help.
“Gender-based misconduct is a serious concern on college campuses throughout the country. To address this concern, the University provides educational and preventative programs, services for individuals who have been impacted by gender-based discrimination or harassment, and accessible, prompt, and equitable methods of investigation and resolution…In addition, the University will take steps to prevent the recurrence of the misconduct and correct its effects, if appropriate.”
— Columbia University, Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students
Tom was one of Sara’s closest friends. Their friends were all friends. They spent a lot of time together. They weren’t in a relationship, but had consensual sex twice.
One night at the end of August, Sara and Tom, both juniors at Columbia, were at a party. Tom was drunk; Sara was not. Tom is tall; Sara is slight. She had nearly fainted earlier that day from dehydration and wanted to take it easy. At the end of the night, they headed back to Sara’s room.
Sara said, minutes in, Tom grabbed her wrists and pinned her arms behind her head. He pushed her legs against her chest and forcefully penetrated her anus. They had never had anal sex before. They had never discussed it. It was painful. Sara began to struggle, screaming at him to stop, yelling at him to get off of her. He didn’t stop.
Afterwards, he laid next to her for a few seconds. They didn’t speak. He abruptly got out of bed, gathered his clothes, and walked out the door, leaving a handle of vodka behind him.
In New York State, first-degree rape is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 25 years. At Columbia, a student found responsible for rape, groping, or harassment could potentially receive the same punishment given to underage students found in possession of alcohol. Both offenses could result in expulsion. Both could result in a written warning. According the Policy on Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, students found responsible for violating the policy, “may be subject to sanctions including, but not limited to, reprimand/warning, disciplinary probation, suspension, and dismissal.”
The students profiled in this series understood the range of punishments their assaulter might receive. They chose to report their assaults with Columbia instead of turning to the NYPD.
Some explicitly hoped for leniency—seeing their assaulter participate in a remedial, community-based program was more attractive than expulsion. In other cases, students felt conflicted about sending their assaulter to jail—“ruining the life”—of an individual who had once been a friend.
Sara believed Columbia’s alternative safer and more private than turning to the police: “I heard so many horrible stories about how badly the police handle cases like these. Columbia also advertises its resources so much that I thought they would really listen to me. I thought I would be taken care of,” she said. She expected that Tom would be expelled.
Unfortunately, said Stanley Arkin, Sara’s lawyer, Columbia’s concern with its
public image results in a lack of transparency about a policy meant to keep its students safe and undermines the university’s commitment to fairness: “The University weighs discretion more than justice. It is trying so hard to keep these acts discrete that, to some extent, the process belies an effective justice.”
The Columbia policy on “gender-based misconduct” describes what a court might consider criminal activity with muted euphemisms: rape becomes “non-consensual sexual intercourse;” sexual abuse converts to “non-consensual sexual contact.” Alleged rapists are referred to in the policy and during the hearing panel as “respondents,” and all literature describes claimants as “complainants.” The judiciary hearing panel itself, typically composed of two deans/senior administrators and a student, is charged with determining whether the “respondent” is “responsible”—not whether he/she is guilty.
But the university’s promise to foster “a healthy and safe environment in which every member of the community can realize her or his fullest potential” was unequivocally compromised for Sara. Though a no-contact directive, preventing either student from speaking with the other, remains in place, Sara feels fundamentally unsafe in her environment. Her energies are not devoted to her academic work, but to steeling herself for an unexpected run-in with Tom in the library hall. Her capacity to “realize her fullest potential,” stymied.
As Sara put it, “I feel physically ill every time I walk within 100 feet of Tom. I am constantly on edge, fearing he’ll be around the corner.” When Tom recently tried to enter a darkroom in which she was working, Sara burst into tears and had to beg her confused professor to ask Tom to leave. She recently learned from Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct that Tom is permitted to resume his role as a freshman programming coordinator.
Sara never reported Tom to the police or procured a rape kit. She told a few close friends, but otherwise kept it to herself. Sara said going to the cops or even talking with a therapist, let alone filing a report of any kind, was too emotionally exhausting to pursue.
Then, at a party, she ran into Natalie, CC ’15, a former girlfriend of Tom’s; Sara had heard rumors of their messy relationship. She couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of their split.
Natalie and Tom started dating in 2011, three weeks into her freshman year at Columbia. They were together, on-and-off, until May of 2012.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, intimate partner violence is a particularly difficult area of sexual assault to measure, because “it often occurs in private, and victims are often reluctant to report incidents because of shame or fear of reprisal.” Columbia’s own definition “includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce…”
Natalie’s relationship with Tom fit both of these definitions: she felt emotionally and sexually exploited, but was unable to identify it as abuse.
She was suffering from serious depression before meeting Tom and had recently ended an emotionally abusive relationship.
She would later wonder whether Tom used her vulnerability to manipulate her. Her fragile state made their “destructive and unhealthy” physical relationship confusing at best. Tom often forcefully pinned her arms back against the mattress during sex; Natalie would cry during and after they slept together. Not until months after their break up did Natalie recognize this as non-consensual intercourse.
Though neither woman had originally considered reporting their alleged assaults, Sara felt terrified for her peers after discovering Tom had assaulted a second person: “I knew if no one punished him, he would keep on raping women… If I didn’t report it, he would keep harming people for the rest of his time on campus. He had to be stopped. That’s why I decided to report it.”
The two women filed with Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct: Sara on April 18, 2013, under “non-consensual sexual intercourse”; Natalie did the same on April 25, 2013 under “intimate partner violence” and “non-consensual sexual intercourse.”
Within five days of a complaint being filed with Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, specially trained investigator(s) designated by the Assistant Director of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, Rosalie Siler, begin to gather “pertinent documentation materials” from both respondent and complainant. This information includes interviews with both parties as well any communication (text messages, emails) shared between the two students relating to the alleged assault. Interviews are also conducted with friends of the involved students who were told about the alleged assault.
“A specially trained investigator(s) designated by the Assistant Director will interview the complainant, respondent, and any witnesses…This investigator(s) will also gather any pertinent documentation materials. The investigator(s) will then prepare a report detailing the relevant content from the interviews and the documentation materials gathered.”
— Columbia University, Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct Policies for Students
Natalie was interviewed by one of Columbia’s neutral third party Title IX Investigators, Jilleian Sessions-Stackhouse. She was asked to dictate her narrative to Sessions-Stackhouse, who took notes by hand and without a recording device.
This fallible method of recording interviews seems an odd choice in investigating such serious alleged crimes. “She would write things down that were abbreviations of what I said,” Natalie recalled. “Things that weren’t correct. It didn’t come out coherently. It didn’t sound like a strong case.” Survivors of sexual assault often express that deciding when, how, and in what words their assault occurred is of the utmost importance. For Natalie, the holes in the transcript of her interview not only weakened her story but kept her from having ownership over the retelling of her history with emotional and sexual violence.
Because Natalie reported only two weeks before the end of the spring semester, the Office “wanted to get the case over with before the summer started. It felt very last minute,” she said.
Exhausted from final exams and moving out of her dorm for the summer vacation, Natalie told Student Services she wasn’t in the best mental or emotional space to represent herself and would rather push the hearing until after she had time to recuperate over vacation. Natalie remembers Sessions-Stackhouse encouraging her to speed up the investigation by participating more actively: “Jillein told me, ‘You’re not going to want to have to think about this over the summer.’”
“The panel uses “preponderance of evidence” as the standard of proof to determine whether a policy violation occurred. Preponderance of evidence means that a panel must be convinced based on the information provided that a policy violation was more likely to have occurred than to not have occurred in order to find a student responsible for violating a policy.”
— Columbia University, Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students
Complainants are given the opportunity to review and comment on the respondent’s statement regarding the case. Sessions-Stackhouse suggested that, if Natalie wasn’t prepared to dissect Tom’s statement, that she simply come in and make “Xs” in the margins to mark places where she disagreed with his version of the story, according to Natalie.
Natalie asked if she might take a copy of Tom’s statement home, to more carefully consider her response. Siler told her that students are not permitted to remove any materials relating to their case from the Office of Gender Misconduct and proposed that Sessions-Stackhouse simply read Tom’s letter to Natalie over the phone.
The logistics of coordinating private phone calls across times zones nine hours apart and around her family seemed an emotional burden too taxing to manage. “After a month of that huge mental space being taken up by that office, I couldn’t let it follow me,” she said. Assuming that (as it had when Tom postponed Sara’s case to spent the summer outside of New York) the investigation would be postponed until she was ready to participate and returned to Columbia in the fall, Natalie stopped returning Sessions-Stackhouse’s emails asking her to call and discuss the case, essentially removing herself from the investigation.
Natalie was surprised to receive a letter from Siler that seemed to end the case before it began: “Based on the information available from the investigation, there is not sufficient information to indicate that reasonable suspicion exists to believe that a policy violation occurred.”
Student Services never contacted the witness, a friend with whom Natalie had discussed Tom’s alleged abuse during their relationship, that Natalie provided.
With the case closed, Tom regained access to residence halls after a temporary restriction during the investigation. Natalie earned Incompletes in half of her classes that spring.
“Every effort will be made to convene a hearing panel as soon as practicable following the conclusion of the investigation—ideally within thirty (30) calendar days after the receipt of the initial report…Timelines may vary depending on the details of the case and at certain times of the academic year (e.g. during break periods, final exam time, etc.). ”
— Columbia University, “Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students”
Sara’s case took seven months. “They dragged it on… torturing me, just to tell me ‘no.’ He gets no punishment at all.” Sara reported her rape to Columbia on April 18, 2013. Tom was found “not responsible” on November 8.
Sara appealed the hearing panel’s findings. In the case of an appeal, final decisions regarding responsibility in sexual assault cases are made by either Terry Martinez, Dean of Student Affairs or James Valentini, Dean of Columbia College. Oddly, neither is physically present for the judiciary hearing. Instead, as Siler stated during an informational panel about the assault policy, Valentini “has access to the investigative report and information related to the hearing.”
Sara described Tom’s evasion of the hearing in her letter of appeal to Dean Valentini, arguing that, as the maxim goes, justice delayed is justice denied: Tom’s twice postponement of the hearing due to “academic conflicts” violated her right to a hearing “ideally within 30 days of the initial report.”
Further, as in Natalie’s case, the Title IX Investigator, Jilleian Sessions-Stackhouse, assigned to Sara’s case, recorded her story during their first interview manually. Sara watched Sessions-Stackhouse’s hand scribbling notes across a page and saw that she made glaring errors in her transcription. “I would be describing the position I was in when he raped me and her hand just wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t write it down. That’s important stuff.”
It was important enough that the investigator had to call Sara for subsequent interviews to fill in the details she missed the first time around. Sara’s file was complicated by the fact that her story was collected during multiple interviews, spread in bits and pieces across a thick packet of paper. Two addendums, stapled to the back of the packet, corrected the typos and misspellings included in the investigator’s original transcription of Sara’s interview. By contrast, Tom wrote his own explanatory statement in addition to the Title IX investigative interview: concise, carefully written, and legally-advised, it could be found easily in a single spot by members of the hearing panel.
It is unclear why Tom was allowed to include an independent additional statement in the investigative report, but the discrepancy seems to contradict the policy’s mandate to ensure balanced hearings.
“Hearing panelists receive specialized training focused on topics related to gender-based and sexual misconduct, how to facilitate the hearing process, and how to make decisions in the process.”
— Columbia University, Hearing Panel Application
Sara stood before the threesome of “specially trained panelists”—in her case, all faculty members—who determine the responsibility of the respondent. She was feeling confident. The panelists thanked her for her time and told her they knew it was hard for her to be there. They seemed sympathetic to her story and invested in hearing her voice.
Her confidence plummeted after one of the first questions asked by a panelist who seemed confused about the nature of rape itself: “Did he use lubrication? I don’t understand how it’s possible to have anal sex without using lubrication first,” Sara recalled the panelist saying.
Sara was stunned. “Rape is the use of force. You just shove it in and it hurts like hell and that’s why I was screaming… I couldn’t believe it was my responsibility to educate them about that,” she said.
In situations where the University becomes aware of a pattern of behavior by one or more respondents, the University will take appropriate action in an attempt to protect the University community.
— Columbia University, “Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students”
Finally, there was the evidence not considered relevant in the judiciary hearing. One of Sara’s main reasons for choosing to report was her awareness of assaults on other students.
As Arkin, her lawyer, put it, “Prior similar acts are powerful evidence of bad intentions.”
After reconvening the hearing panel to clarify their finding that Tom was not responsible, Dean Valentini wrote to Sara to deny her appeal:
“I have…concluded that the new evidence you have submitted [relating to Tom’s alleged repeat offenses with sexual violence] does not meet the standard [of overturning a panel’s original decision].”
In fact, Tom was the respondent in a third case filed with Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. According to Valentini, three independent accusations of Tom’s sexual aggression did not constitute a pattern of behavior admissible in Sara’s case.
However, Tom was found responsible in the third case. That is, until Dean Valentini upheld Tom’s appeal, overturning the panel’s recommendation.
“The three grounds upon which an appeal of the decision and/or sanctions may be made are:
The student believes a procedural error occurred, which the student feels may change or affect the outcome of the decision;
The student has substantive new evidence that was not available at the time of the hearing and that may change the outcome of the decision;
The student feels that the severity of the sanction is inappropriate given the details of the case.”
— Columbia University, Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students
Josie, BC ’13, was bartending a party in April of 2012. She went upstairs to bring down more beer to restock the bar. Tom, drunk, followed her; she hadn’t asked him to join her, but his offer to help retrieve the PBR seemed friendly enough. He came into the room behind her, shut the door, and flicked off the lights. She asked him what he was doing. He moved toward her aggressively, grabbed her arms, saying, ‘Come on,’ and tried to kiss her. She pushed him off and rushed from the room as quickly as she could.
Josie wrote it off as creepy, drunken aggression. She told some close friends how unnerved she was, but Tom left her alone after that night. “I wasn’t emotionally scarred or anything. I’m used to people grabbing my ass in bars—that’s the shitty state of the world today. Honestly, I didn’t even think it was a reportable offense covered by the misconduct policy,” she said.
But when a mutual friend of hers and Tom’s told Josie that she heard he was participating in a hearing panel related to sexual assault, something clicked. “What if I wasn’t as tall and strong as I am? What if I was really drunk? Those ideas made me very scared for other women,” she remembered thinking.
And so, in the spring of her senior year, Josie approached Siler about filing a complaint.
Although the hearing was postponed until after summer break (and after she had graduated from Barnard), Josie felt good about the process. Sessions-Stackhouse was attentive during her interviews. She felt supported by the “distinctly unbiased” three-faculty hearing panel.
Still, for Josie, the hearing was almost “more emotionally draining than the event itself… The possibility that people think you’re not telling the truth, especially about something so traumatic and intense is very scary. You don’t want these smart, objective people to look at the evidence and say, ‘We can’t convict this person.’ ”
The panel found Tom responsible, but it wasn’t exactly cathartic for Josie. Tom received a “disciplinary probation” sanction. A consequence of little concrete impact, the cautionary reprimand is a warning for the future, rather than a response to past offenses. It ambiguously states: “further violation of University policies…will likely result in more serious disciplinary action.”
“It didn’t change that something shitty happened to me or that he’s walking around. But it did feel good that the system worked…And then the feeling when they were listening to his appeal and they gave it to him was the worst feeling in the world,” said Josie.
By the time Tom filed an appeal to reduce his sanction in late November, Josie was employed full-time. Coming to Columbia to review the new investigative report between the hours of 9 and 5 was simply not an option.
The Office worked to accommodate her busy schedule; Melissa Rooker, Columbia’s Title IX Coordinator, went so far as to set up a special website on which Josie could review the file during her lunch hour. But reading documents on her work computer that described the intimate details of her assault felt unsafe.
She sent Rooker an email: “I’ve decided that I actually do not want to review the file or be involved with the process from this point forward. I made my case and I stand by my account of the events.”
The consequence of that decision may have cost Josie the appeal. Rooker responded quickly, telling Josie that the new hearing panel that would manage the appeal hearing, comprised of entirely different faculty members, none of whom were present during the initial hearing, would not have access to “any information regarding the previous investigation, the statements [Josie] made to the previous hearing panel or the rationale or [sic] the previous hearing panel’s decision. The [new] report contains your allegations and the answers to the clarifying questions you provided to Michael [Dunn, Josie’s new Title IX Investigator] last month,” Rooker wrote in an email to Josie.
Josie felt the hours and emotion she devoted to the first hearing were wasted. Though she could re-submit the statement included in the first investigative report, any questions she answered for the panel or comments she made to clarify and explain her experience would not be included as valid evidence. Nor, given her work schedule, would she have an opportunity to engage with the panel again. Instead, the panel would have access only to the original question and answer interview between her and Dunn.
“I was surprised that they listened to the appeal; I was not surprised that they overturned it. I wasn’t there. My testimony was not included. It was different panelists,” she said.
Then Josie received a letter, dated December 17, 2013, informing her of the hearing results, but the contents were confusing: they seemed to indicate that Josie had violated the misconduct policy.
“We were unable to determine that it was more likely than not that you engaged in behavior that meets the definition of sexual assault: non-consensual sexual contact. Therefore, the charge has been dismissed,” the letter, written by Virginia Ryan, the Interim Assistant Director of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct.
The office had sent Josie the letter intended for Tom.
Josie was stunned by the callousness of such a mistake. Mostly, she wondered whether such sloppiness extended to other areas of her case: “What kind of a mix up is that? Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?”
All interview requests with any Columbia offices related to sexual assault—including the Rape Crisis Center, a confidential reporting service available to and run by students—were directed to Phung Tran, the Columbia Health Communications Manager. After six weeks of email exchange and a request that I pre-submit interview questions, which were “vetted by the department and senior staff,” Ms. Tran denied me a meeting with Rosalie Siler; La’Shawn Rivera, the Director of the Rape Crisis Center; or Melissa Rooker, Columbia’s Title IX Coordinator.
I sent a list of clarifying questions regarding the specific practices of Title IX Investigators, the standard of evidence needed to establish a “pattern of behavior,” and the rationale behind an appeal process that disregards previously obtained testimony. I was again declined an interview, and referred back to the policy.
Ms. Tran did not respond to questions regarding how the office ensures a balanced case, what informs the judiciary hearing process, or how effectively the office accommodates the concerns of both complainant and respondent.
In place of my first interview request, Ms. Tran attached a ten-paragraph written statement, responding primarily to a petition the Columbia University Democrats circulated during the fall semester, demanding that Columbia disclose “the number and nature of sexual assaults, rapes, and incidents of gender-based harassment and misconduct.” The statement described the interest of the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault (PACSA) on forming a subcommittee of student leaders interested in discussing the policy.
Further, it expressed concern that disclosing such statistics might infringe on the privacy of students, fearing that it might cause individuals involved in a judiciary hearing “to feel as if their cases have been identified and broadcast publicly to the community” but recognizing the “vital importance” of “candid discussions” surrounding sexual assault at Columbia.