Upon hearing news of the rapist list that was publicly inscribed inside of a Columbia University bathroom stall- I decided to do a little digging and fortuitously opened a Pandora’s Box of unnerving sexual assault mishandlings by the “renowned Ivy League.”
On May 15th Columbia University custodians found a little PSA written in sharpie on a bathroom stall, sporting the headline: “Rapists On Campus,” subsequently listing 4 names of male undergraduates. A flier was also handed out around campus with similar features, identifying one name as a serial rapist and the other three names as responsible for sexual assaults.
Now take a step back and imagine that you are a Columbia University official who supposedly cares about her students and their well being. Upon learning that a student was mentally distressed enough to undertake such a rash and frantic act, your first thought would be that there is something sincerely wrong with the administration, if publicly divulging a list of rapists is the only way for person to gain justice, right? Or would your first thought be to locate the vandal at once and punish her for her deviant act?
While Columbia refused to comment on the list, it was suggested by the Public Safety Officers at the school that writing the names would be seen as an act of vandalism. Daniel Held, executive Director of Communications for Facilities, stated that the incident was being treated as graffiti- connoting disciplinary and even legal consequences for the perpetrator.
This is not the first time that Columbia students have spoken out against sexual violence and the way in which it has been handled by the school. Back in April, 23 Columbia students filed a complaint alleging violations of Title IX (which protects students from gender based discrimination including sexual assault and harassment on campus), Title II (protecting students from discrimination, on the basis of a disability) and the Clery Act (requiring universities to report all allegations of crime on campus). Specifically, Columbia students were accusing administrators of: discouraging sexual assault survivors from formally reporting, discriminating against LGBT survivors, allowing serial offenders to remain on campus, and denying accommodations based on mental health disabilities. In supporting these allegations, many students divulged their own personal horror stories. One of the sexual assault victims at Columbia, Rakhi Agrawal, claimed to have been placed on disciplinary and academic probation because the school considered her mental health to be a liability. In fear of not being able to graduate, Rakhi did not seek counseling and health services after her incident and was further denied accommodations on the basis of her mental health needs and even threatened with expulsion (meanwhile her rapist was probably busy, suspended by his ankles, guzzling cheap beer from a keg).
“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.” Rakhi discloses.
Another survivor, a transgender student, tells a disconcerting tale about Columbia’s refusal to make the academic accommodations to which she was entitled under Title IX on the basis of her gender identity:
“The university showed 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.”
Now here comes the cherry on top of this deplorable mess of an ice cream sundae. In an article published on January 23rd called “The Blue and White,” Columbia student Anna Bahr illuminated the individual experiences of 3 sexual assault survivors, all of whom were assaulted by the same man. Each of the girls’ judicial hearings had 3 things in common: inefficient trials, disorganized documentation, and panelists who expressed insensitivity to their fragile mental states. One of the victims who was raped anally had her testimony called into question by “specially trained panelists,” one of whom discredited her story on the grounds that “it is impossible to have anal sex without using lubrication first” (well uhm… it wasn’t sex, it was rape).
According to the lawyer of one of the victims, Columbia’s concern with its public image was resulting in a lack of transparency regarding a policy meant to keep its students safe, “The University weighs discretion more than justice. It is trying so hard to keep these acts discrete that, to some extent, the process belies effective justice.”
Being more concerned about its reputation than student safety seems to be a common theme with Columbia these days. But this whole saga has got me thinking about whether the University's rape cases have received such national attention because of a larger number of sexual assaults in comparison to other Universities- or because people are just surprised that such a prestigious school could be the stage for such travesties. In April, the Obama administration conducted a study that showed that one in five female students had been sexually assaulted sometime in their college careers (and that’s just 12% of attacks that were reported). Clearly this issue spans much wider than just the Columbia University campus. Ultimately, as a soon-to-be college student there is something that troubles me more than these Universities’ mishandling of sexual assault, and that is society's acceptance of rape as an ordinary and inevitable hazard of college life. This idea that rape is something that just happens and that no one can really do anything about is a myth- but still people buy into it! In the end, it is this destructive national sentiment that emboldens male college students to feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to women, and allows them to sleep soundly through the night while their victims are forced to live in a perpetual state of fear and shame. Maybe in order to save women from sexual assault, the anti rape education needs to start much earlier than college.