COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY — Hundreds of people gathered in front of Columbia University's main library Friday afternoon demanding the university change its approach in handling allegations of sexual assault and rape on campus and calling for the school to involve students in shaping new policies.
Spearheaded by the campus group No Red Tape, the rally drew current Columbia and Barnard students, alumni, and students from other colleges and universities, including Union Theological Seminary.
The demonstration also became an opportunity for survivors to voice their experiences with sexual assault and rape both on campus and before they arrived at the university — some speaking about their experiences for the very first time.
Students lined the library steps carrying handmade signs and admonishing the university for what they deemed to be past failures in regard to addressing rape and sexual assault. Behind them, a piece of red masking tape was plastered onto the mouth of the iconic Alma Mater statue, a reference to the experience of being silenced on the issue that many students said they've felt.
In front of the protesters sat a pile of a dozen or so blue dorm mattresses that students hauled from their rooms to show solidarity with student Emma Sulkowicz, 21, who has committed to carrying her mattress everywhere she goes at Columbia until a classmate she accused of raping her is kicked out of the university.
Though No Red Tape has protested before, this gathering represented its largest effort yet, organizers said.
"This is a really exciting time. It's the first time a massive amount of people have spoken out about sexual assault on campus," said George Joseph, 20, who helped organize the event.
The protest represents the first of many future on-campus actions aimed at getting the administration's attention, he said.
In recent months, the university has assured students it is working on and actively revising its policies, and has made changes like opening a 24-hour rape crisis center and adding counselors.
But students said Columbia isn't going far enough. They charge, among other complaints, that the university allows accused and convicted rapists to remain on campus, forcing their victims to live in fear of running into them.
"There are students walking alongside their rapists," said Jen Roesch, who said she was raped 22 years ago as a student at Columbia.
She and others are holding President Lee Bollinger to his promise of providing statistics of the incidence of rape and assault on campus.
"When will Lee Bollinger speak?" Roesch asked.
Class of 2014 student Marybeth Seitz-Brown, who is part of a federal complaint against the university for its handling of sexual assault and rape, claimed some people on campus want the ongoing discussion about the issue to be over.
"There's this general idea among many that we should just shut up already," she said, adding that though it's painful, the conversation is not going away.
Through the course of the three-hour rally, many survivors, giving only their first names, spoke through tears of harrowing experiences getting raped on campus and of the challenge of carrying on afterwards.
"We will not back down...we will not cower in shame," said class of 2015 student Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a No Red Tape member who described herself as a victim of sexual assault and helped lead the rally.
Columbia did not return a request for comment.