Twenty-three Columbia and Barnard students have filed a federal complaint that alleges violations of Title IX, Title II and the Clery Act by the University. The complaint comes after months of students advocating for changes in the way the administration handles cases of sexual assault.
The 100-page complaint alleges that the University allows accused perpetrators of sexual assault to remain on campus, has too-lenient sanctions for perpetrators, discourages victims from reporting assault and denies accommodations to students with mental health disabilities (which they say result from their attacks). The students also claim that LGBTQ students are discriminated against in advising, counseling and Greek Life.
Title IX protects students from gender-based discrimination, including sexual assault, on campus. The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on or near their campuses. Title II protects students from disability-based discrimination. By filing all three complaints, the students hope to hold the university responsible for not only allegedly mishandling rape cases but also for the way they deal with students who have mental health issues after being attacked.
“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, a senior and one of the students who filed the complaint, 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.”
She added, “The thing to highlight here is how much this is not just about sexual violence but mental health as well.” One of the complainants said that she was placed on disciplinary and academic probation because she was a “mental health liability” after she was allegedly assaulted.
The filing also says that the University failed to accomodate a transgender student. The student—who remained anonymous but uses “they,” “them,” “their” pronouns—says there is a “general ignorance and hostility towards my gender identity … even [the] dismissal of my rape because it didn’t fit the normative ‘boy-rapes-girl’ narrative.”
In January, student Anna Bahr interviewed three sexual assault survivors in Columbia’s Blue and White. All three women alleged that they were assaulted by the same man, and all said they had bad experiences with the administration after reporting their assault. One student said she was raped anally and her testimony was questioned by a “specially trained panelist” who didn’t “understand how it’s possible to have anal sex without using lubrication first.”
Columbia’s President called for increased sexual assault transparency after the story was published. He claimed that several initiatives were already on the way.
But that’s not enough for students. “I don’t trust the University to take my experience or my safety more seriously than they take their own public image,” Cami Quarta, one of the Columbia complainants said in the filing.
If Columbia is found in violation of the Clery Act, it will have to pay $35,000 per violation. If it is found in violation of Title IX and Title II, it will be subject to federal review and could lose federal funding.
Students at Columbia join several of their peers at other schools in filing Title IX complaints: sixteen students filed a complaint against Yale University in 2011; complaints were filed against University of North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Amherst, UConn in 2013; and a student filed a Title IX lawsuit against Northwestern in February—to name a few. The proliferation of complaints has prompted a White House task force to protect students from sexual assault.