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Columbia Sex Assault Advocates Drop Mattresses at College President's Home

By Emily Frost | October 30, 2014 10:55am
 Students demanded more changes to the university's policies at a rally Wednesday. 
Columbia Students Rally for Changes to University's Sexual Assault Policy
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MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — Students protesting Columbia University's policy on sexual assault delivered more than two dozen mattresses to the home of school President Lee Bollinger Wednesday during a rally coinciding with a national day of action for victims of sexual and domestic violence.

The rallies were launched in support of the "Carry That Weight" movement, stemming from the activism of Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz, who has been carrying a dorm mattress around as a symbol of the burden she says she faces as a survivor until her accused rapist, a fellow student, is removed from campus. 

Thousands of students from colleges across the U.S., including Connecticut College, Rutgers, Stanford, Fordham, and a few international schools including the Central European University in Budapest, participated in similar events, carrying mattresses and using the hashtag #carrythatweight to share their campus' activism on social media. 

Barnard and Columbia students carried 28 mattresses from Barnard's campus to the steps of Columbia's Low Library, before carrying them to university president Lee Bollinger's house on Morningside Drive and leaving them there, along with a list of demands they taped on his front door. Bollinger was not present. 

The group No Red Tape, which organized the demonstration, chose the number 28 to represent the number of students who have filed Title IX complaints with the Department of Education against Columbia, including 23 last April. The federal DOE has not yet said whether it will investigate the reports from the university. 

At the lengthy rally, students stood beside their mattresses, chanting slogans like "hey, hey, ho, ho, rape culture has got to go." Speakers included students who spoke out about their experiences with sex assault on campus, a Barnard professor and Public Advocate Letitia James.

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a senior and a leader in the ongoing fight for change on campus, said she kept quiet about an assault until Sulkowicz spoke up about her own two years ago. Hearing Sulkowicz tell her it "wasn't your fault" meant a great deal to her, she said, calling upon the crowd assembled to do more for survivors and to stop rape in the first place.

"We can shut down rape jokes... We can step up and say something if a situation looks uncomfortable and might lead to violence," Ridolfi-Starr said. 

James — who introduced a bill this week in the City Council that would require the city to do more to educate people about rape, make it easier to report rape through an app, and list citywide resources for victims — applauded the students and urged more action. 

"What we need is more funding for rape crisis centers, not just in wonderful lily-white neighborhoods, but all throughout the city of New York," James said.

Though some students acknowledged that the university has taken positive steps and heeded some of the protesters' demands, they said they won't stop fighting for more changes.

At the heart of their new demands is a call for stronger penalties for students found responsible by the university for rape or sexual assault. 

"There is a simple solution to making this campus safe: Expel rapists," yelled Sarah Yee, who said both of her alleged rapists, from two separate incidents, were suspended for one semester and then allowed to return. 

"I'm no less afraid of seeing my rapist every time I leave my door," Sulkowicz added.

Students are also angry that university deans are still involved in the adjudication process, arguing that school officials have a vested interest in maintaining the university's reputation and can't be impartial. 

Student activists want more involvement in crafting policies and have called for those policies to be formally reviewed every two years. They have also requested ongoing bystander training for all students — at least once every semester — that would educate people on how to intervene if a sexual assault may be happening or has the potential to occur.

"Your new policies are a step in the right direction, but they still suck," said Sulkowicz, addressing Bollinger, who did not attend Wednesday's rally or one held on campus in early September.

In a statement, the university listed recent changes to how it handles sexual assault, including adding three new survivor advocates, opening a new rape crisis center, and providing legal counsel to both the alleged victim and perpetrator. 

"Student activism here and around the nation has played an important role in encouraging these efforts.  As a university we have made substantial new investments to further strengthen our personnel, physical resources, and policies dedicated to preventing and responding to gender-based misconduct," Columbia said in a statement. 

While many speakers asked the larger community on campus and beyond to remember the role it plays in perpetuating or stopping rape culture, Sulkowicz concluded her speech by bringing the focus back to Bollinger.

"All of us here have our eyes on you," she said. "Do something. We are waiting."