Columbia University Ignites Anger Over Sexual Assault Policies

College sexual assault has proven to be an enduring problem at universities across the country, sparking dozens of demonstrations and protests focused mainly on the inadequate nature of the campus sexual assault response policies.

At Columbia University, incidences of mishandled sexual assault cases by school officials prompted students to take their concerns to the federal government. This past April, a group of Columbia students filed three federal complaints regarding sexual assault policies at the school, launching investigations into the university’s assault response system.

Other students worked to improve policies on campus. In May, one student sent an email to school administrators requesting that students be allowed to participate in the decision-making regarding a comprehensive flow-chart outlining the school’s resources for sexual assault survivors.

Columbia’s Title IX compliance officer then accidentally replied to this email with a message intended for her colleague, revealing blatant disdain for the student’s request, writing “Wow again. Direct contact with decision makers, not just us? Anything else!?!”

The student then replied to the email, directly expressing her displeasure with the officer’s inappropriate attitude and with the general disrespect of school administrators toward students wanting a greater part in improving sexual assault policies on campus.

This email indicates the frustration of many college students who are becoming increasingly angry with poor handling of sexual assault – and who are going to extremes to show it. Emma Sulkowicz, a student at Columbia, started off her senior year this past week by carrying an extra-long twin-size mattress with her to every single one of her classes – and vows to continue to do so until the man who raped her is taken off campus.

Photo courtesy of Think Progress

Sulkowicz, who says she was raped in her own bed, hopes that this action, which she calls Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight, will open the eyes of those who have continually dismissed sexual assault claims and failed to take such incidents seriously. “I could have taken my pillow, but I want people to see how it weighs down a person to be ignored by the school administration and harassed by police,” she said.

A member of the group of Columbia students who filed the federal complaint in April, Sulkowicz had submitted a police report at the time of her assault but was largely ignored by both police and Columbia officials. The man who she says raped her was accused of similar abuse by two other women, but was deemed “not responsible” and let off in all three situations by school officials.

Sulkowicz’s mattress operation, which serves as both awareness-raising activism and performance art, reflects the torment and frustration of hundreds and hundreds of sexual assault victims across the nation who are shown mainly contempt when asking for help. While significant measures have been taken to strengthen campus sexual assault response methods in the past year, such as President Obama’s new task force to curb sexual assault on campus, many students feel that such initiatives are still insufficient in dealing with such a glaring issue.

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Katie Tu