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Columbia’s response to campus rape is “prolonged, degrading, and ultimately fruitless”

Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz carries her mattress to protest the university's handling of her sexual assault case
Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz carries her mattress to protest the university's handling of her sexual assault case
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz has made national headlines in recent weeks for carrying her mattress with her everywhere she goes on campus. Her project, "Carry that Weight," is a highly-visible performance-art protest against the university's failure to discipline the fellow student who Sulkowicz said raped her at the beginning of her sophomore year. Sulkowicz's parents have now added their voices of support to her protest, in an anguished open letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger.

Their letter, for the first time, details a parent's view of problems with Columbia's disciplinary process. Their catalogue of Columbia's missteps suggests that Columbia is not meeting its obligation to prevent gender discrimination on its campus — and is failing to keep its students safe.

According to Sulkowicz, she and fellow Columbia student Jean-Paul Nungesser, whom her parents named in their letter (read the Columbia Spectator's rationale for identifying Nungesser here), were having consensual sex when he "hit her across the face, choked her, and pushed her knees onto her chest and leaned on her knees to keep them up," then grabbed her wrists and penetrated her anally. She kept quiet about the attack at first, but decided to press charges against Nungesser through the university's disciplinary system after two other students told her that he had attacked them as well. "I realized that if I didn't report him he'd continue to attack women on this campus. I had to do it for those other women," she told the Columbia Spectator.

However, Columbia's disciplinary system found Nungesser "not responsible," through a process that she's criticized as unfair, and allowed him to remain on campus. In their letter, Sulkowicz's parents write that the evidentiary standards used in the Columbia hearing process were deeply flawed.

For example, the letter says that Nungesser repeatedly referenced an old video, in which Sulkowicz discussed a fencing injury, that he argued proved she had an irrational fear of immobilization that led her to panic during their consensual sex and falsely accuse him of rape.

But Sulkowicz says he was lying about the video, which she says only portrays her as being frustrated about wearing a cast. What outrages her parents is that, according to their letter, she was forbidden from showing the video, or even explaining its contents, even as Nungesser made these claims. They write that Rosalie Siler, the Columbia staff member who was supposed to represent Sulkowicz's interests in the hearing, told her not to speak up.

"Our daughter was instructed by Ms. Siler not to answer these allegations in any way, and not even to inform the panel that he was lying," they write. "Emma begged Ms. Siler to allow her to expose the lie by explaining the video's content to the panelists, but was refused." The video is "still readily viewable, and the boldness of the lie can be easily verified."

Siler also did not permit Sulkowicz to explain why she waited until several months after the alleged rape to file a complaint with the university. When Sulkowicz tried to do so, Siler allegedly "told her to stop talking and pulled her from the room." For this incident, it's really best to read the parents' own description of what happened:

Emma was not allowed to explain, in her own words, the timing of her reporting. Emma tried to explain that, after meeting two women who told her they too had been raped by Nungesser (only one of whom filed a complaint), she realized that she should overcome personal shame and report him to ensure the safety of others. Ms. Siler told her to stop talking and pulled her from the room. To the panelists, the timing of Emma's decision to report that she was raped — seven months after she said it had occurred-remained a mystery. The reason for her conflict with Ms. Siler could only be fodder for their speculation.

The panel was not permitted to consider Nungesser's history of sexual misconduct in the hearing, even though he had previously been found "responsible" for assaulting another student:

The fact that Nungesser had previously been found "responsible" by a Columbia panel for following another Columbia student to her room, shoving his way in, forcefully pinning, and groping her was not allowed as evidence in Emma's hearing. Just days before her hearing, Dean Valentini granted an appeal of this verdict, which re-opened the case and consequently disallowed it as evidence. This effectively hamstrung Emma's case. (An aside: The final hearing for this other case was scheduled and held at a time the complainant had specified that she was not available to testify. Without her presence, the original panel's "responsible" verdict was easily overturned.)

The hearing process suffered from significant delays, taking more than six and a half months, far longer than the 60-day timeline it was supposed to follow.

Because of the accommodation of multiple postponement requests by Nungesser, Emma's hearing did not take place for six and a half months. This included allowing him to be unavailable for an entire summer vacation. Not only were these delays cruel to our daughter and our family, they were contrary to the 60 day recommended timeframe imposed by Columbia's (and federal) policy.

The appeal process appears to have been similarly flawed, and may have served to reinforce flaws in the original hearing process, rather than redress them.

Dean Valentini responded to Emma's request for an appeal by taking the unusual step of "re-convening" the same panel that had returned the "not responsible" decision, and discussing the case with them to inform his decision. This did not constitute a fair, independent, and unbiased look at the proceedings, and it is not the way an appeal should be either granted or denied.

The investigative report presented to the panel was apparently filled with errors, but Sulkowicz's requests that they be corrected were denied.

Emma's request that the investigative report presented to the panelists be cleared of errors and presented in clear narrative form was denied. Due to the carelessness of the investigator's note-taking, the incoherent report — full of confusing errata and addenda — contained factual errors as well, such as the length of time that Emma said Nungesser lay next to her after the incident, (seconds not "minutes"). There is no doubt that the denial of this request actively hurt her case.

This dispute is about much more than punishing one alleged rapist. Under Title IX, universities are prohibited from discriminating against their students because of their gender. Sexual harassment, including sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence, is considered a form of gender discrimination, which means that universities have an affirmative obligation to prevent such assaults when they can and to respond to them properly when they do occur.

The issues with Columbia's disciplinary process that Sulkowicz's parents describe in their letter (and which Sulkowicz herself, and other student advocates, have been vigorously protesting), suggest that those standards are not being met in this case. For the safety of its students, and the equality of their educational opportunities, Columbia needs to do better.

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