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Columbia Students File Complaint Over Treatment of Sexual Assault Victims

By Gustavo Solis | April 24, 2014 5:32pm
  Students filed a federal complaint against the university's treatment of sexual assault victims.
Students filed a federal complaint against the university's treatment of sexual assault victims.
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DNAinfo/Mariel S. Clark

MANHATTAN — A group of 23 Barnard and Columbia University students filed a complaint claiming that the university regularly violates federal regulations regarding how it handles sexual assault on campus.

The 100-page complaint — filed Thursday morning with the Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights — provide detailed examples of how the university has mismanaged past investigations, according to Marybeth Seitz-Brown, one of the students who filed the complaint.

Among the problems cited in the complaint are the university's practice of allowing suspects to remain on campus during the investigation, its habit of discouraging victims from reporting assault and its history of giving out too-lenient punishments against suspects found guilty.

“There is a consistent inequality in treatment and options between the survivors and the perpetrators,” Seitz-Brown said. “There is a disconnect between policy and what actually happens.”

Seitz-Brown and the other 22 students who filed the complaint, originally reported by the Columbia Spectator, hope it prompts federal agencies to investigate Columbia University’s handling of sexual assault cases.

Columbia officials have not seen the complaint and were not able to comment on its allegations, a spokesman said.

The legal papers come on the heels of a decadelong battle over the university's handling of sexual assault incidents, most recently culminating in protests, meetings with school officials, and town hall meetings.

Advocates have long complained that because Columbia prefers to handle sexual assault hearings on campus, rather than reporting them to the NYPD, and because suspects are allowed to stay on campus during investigations, victims are forced to relive their trauma every time they pass their alleged attackers en route to class or their dorms, Seitz-Brown said.

In addition, the university often pushes back hearings to the summer break, forcing victims to make accommodations to remain in NYC to ensure they don't miss the hearing, essentially making them pay for justice, Seitz-Brown said.

In past cases, students found guilty of sexual assault have been give lenient punishments including having to attend a one hour workshop and brief suspensions, according to the complaint.

“The harshest [punishment] we’ve seen are one or two semester suspensions,” Seitz-Brown said. “No one has been expelled.”

Since students began speaking out, more and more victims have come forward. The group hopes that by filing the complaint, more victims will know that they are not alone, Seitz-Brown said.

Barnard and Columbia University — which share a Rape Crisis Anti-Violence Support Center — have begun taken steps to ensure the safety and well being of victims of sexual assault, the center wrote in a statement.

"Sexual assault and gender misconduct are unacceptable, including on college and university campus,” the statement reads.

"We have been working with students, faculty and staff to make that emphatically clear on our campus and have already taken the first of a series of significant new measures dedicated to preventing such sexual misconduct, supporting survivors, and improving adjudication of these painful cases."