Columbia Comes Under Fire For Handling Of Sexual Assault Cases

Twenty-three students from Columbia and Barnard say that the university is mishandling allegations of sexual assault. They filed federal complaints with the Department of Education on Thursday.

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Students at one of the country's most prestigious colleges say the school is systematically mishandling allegations of sexual assault. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the students at Columbia University have filed federal complaints in an effort to force changes at the school.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The three complaints were filed by 23 students at Columbia and its affiliated Barnard College in New York. Among the charges, they say that students are pressured not to report incidents of sexual assault or harassment, that those who do report assaults are often told they must not discuss their cases outside of the campus disciplinary process and that the alleged perpetrators are frequently allowed to remain on campus and even in classes with their accusers.

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: It sets up a situation in which the university is actively contributing to the ongoing perpetration of sexual violence on campus, and it's awful.

ROSE: Zoe Ridolfi-Starr is a junior at Columbia, and one of the students who signed the complaints against school officials.

RIDOLFI-STARR: We've been telling them this and telling them this, and we haven't seen them making any substantive changes.

ROSE: Students here have been protesting for months in an effort to draw attention to how the school responds to allegations of sexual assault. In February, Columbia's president pledged to change the way the school reports data about assaults on campus, but that was not enough to satisfy Columbia senior Marybeth Seitz-Brown, who also signed on to one of the complaints.

MARYBETH SEITZ-BROWN: To be honest, it's every single university in this nation has this issue. So it's everywhere. You know, just because we're an Ivy League school doesn't mean we don't have problems, doesn't mean rape doesn't happen here, and I don't think anyone's denying that, but I don't think that they really understand what it means to fix it.

ROSE: The complaints were filed with the Department of Education, which will decide whether to investigate. A spokesman for Columbia declined to comment, but in a statement he said reforms at the school will continue. Columbia is just the latest among dozens of schools that are facing charges for allegedly mishandling sexual assaults under Title IX and the Cleary Act. That's in part because of a change in the way the laws are enforced, but it's also because students from different schools are building networks to teach each other how to file complaints and to support each other.

S. Daniel Carter(ph) directs the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative.

S. DANIEL CARTER: The complaints are important, the administrative reviews are important, but they're still only affecting a small percentage of colleges and universities. They are getting the attention of colleges and universities across the country, however, and fostering proactive change across the country.

ROSE: Change the students at Columbia hope they can spark on their campus. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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