Students File Federal Complaints Against Columbia for Failing to Address Sexual Harassment

Students File Federal Complaints Against Columbia for Failing to Address Sexual Harassment

Students File Federal Complaints Against Columbia for Failing to Address Sexual Harassment

The school would have to pay $35,000 per violation under the Clery Act.


This post originally appeared in {Young}ist and has been edited and reprinted with permission.

Trigger Warning: The following content discusses specific cases of sexual assault

“I don’t trust the University to take my experience or my safety more seriously than they take their own public image.“– Cami Quarta, Columbia survivor and complainant

This morning, twenty-three Columbia students filed a federal complaint, more than a hundred pages long, alleging violations of Title IX, Title II and the Clery Act against their university. If found in violation the school will have to pay $35,000 per violation under the Clery Act. If found in violation of Title IX and Title II, regarding Columbia’s response to campus sexual assault and mental health respectively, the university will be subject to federal review and could lose federal funding.

The issue of campus sexual violence has come to national light after a wave of students from UNC, Occidental, UConn, UC Berkeley and Dartmouth filed Title IX allegations, prompting a White House task force on the issue and vocal support from national political figures like California Congresswoman Jackie Speier and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

While the Columbia students’ decision follows this growing trend, they distinguish themselves by having filed an additional Title II complaint that takes administrators to task for their inappropriate response not only to survivors’ initial violent experiences but also to their subsequent mental health trauma. “Sexual violence and mental health are inextricably linked,” said Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a lead complainant in the filing. She continued, “By ignoring, denying, and discriminating against survivors who express mental health care needs, we cannot fully support them.”

The group alleges numerous violations of Title IX, Title II and the Clery Act, including but not limited to: administrators discouraging survivors from formally reporting; LGBTQ students facing discrimination in counseling, advising, adjudication and Greek life; serial offenders remaining on campus; inadequate disciplinary sanctions; discrimination against survivors and denied accommodations based on mental health disabilities.

In one of the complaints, a survivor who had been placed on disciplinary and academic probation because the school considered her a mental health liability did not seek school counseling and health services after her incident because she didn’t want to risk her graduation. She was also denied accommodations on the basis of her mental health needs and threatened with expulsion, a clear Title II violation. The survivor, Rakhi Agrawal, said “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.”

In another complaint, one survivor recounted the daily terror she felt due to the continued presence of her perpetrator on campus, causing her to receive incompletes in half of her classes and forcing her to withdraw from another. “Because of Columbia’s incompetence,” she wrote, “I was not able to pursue a just outcome on my own terms, and I continue to be triggered by my rapist’s presence on a weekly basis.” Other complaints detail specific administrative intimidation.

A queer trans survivor filed against the university for its refusal to make academic accommodations the student was entitled to under Title IX. They wrote, “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.”

The push for reform on campus was prompted by the angry voices of survivors who chose to speak out and share their experiences. Yet despite almost a year of official negotiations between students, senators and campus leaders, the university has done next to nothing—aside from organizing two townhalls and updating its website layout—to overhaul their response procedures. In fact, the administration, as reported previously on {Young}ist, has forcefully silenced protesters and even intimidated student activists and journalists from speaking out with disciplinary threats, also outlined in the filing.

Given this hostile environment, students felt they had no choice but to file a federal complaint. “It’s clear that student activism, meeting with administrators, and multiple articles about the issue are not enough to push Columbia to make campus a safer place,” said complainant Marybeth Seitz-Brown. “We turn to Title IX, not because we believe it is the ultimate source of healing and justice, but as a tool for mobilizing action.” Starr added, emphasizing the immediacy of the issue, “This is something that students are struggling with on a daily basis, we are desperate for help and have tried every other option.” The students do not appeal to law as the sole source of justice regarding sexual violence, as this is often not the case; rather they appeal to the law because of the force behind it, a force that must be used when confronting an institution as large and powerful as Columbia University.

To be clear, the power of the filing is not that it will end campus sexual violence. Rather, it offers students the opportunity to transform their community’s approach to, and indeed understanding of, this nationwide epidemic. By filing, students, leveraging the power of the federal government, have greater agency to reform the painful bureaucratic processes survivors have to endure, bring accountability to the actions of administrators, and, perhaps most importantly, transform the official discourse surrounding sexual violence. “I see Title IX as a tool students can use as part of larger anti-violence work in our communities,” said one of the filers, who wished to remain anonymous. Forcing the university to publicly recognize the daily crisis that is campus sexual assault is the first step on our long road ahead. It is only by holding by university officials accountable can we begin to do the same for our larger community. “For me personally, filing is a way to force administrators to take immediate action to making campus safer. But it’s just one step for us.” said one complainant. “I want to see us meaningfully talking about how our communities excuse and enable violence and how we respond to and support survivors in addition to all the bureaucratic and procedural changes that need to happen.”


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