CONTENT WARNING: sexual assault (including a photo collage that depicts some injuries)
I was already a survivor before coming to Columbia. I already knew I wanted to do anti-sexual violence work. I already knew the statistic that around half of childhood sexual assault survivors are assaulted again later in life, but unconsciously, I still thought, “Well if I don’t drink or wear short skirts or walk around alone at night, it won’t happen to me again.”
But now I’m finishing my freshman year, and I’ve already been assaulted again … twice.
After the first time, I called Columbia Sexual Violence Response’s 24/7 hotline at midnight. I was connected to a random person at some company called FoneMed (I found this out later — they don’t tell you when you call that your call is being outsourced) who, according to one of SVR’s own staff advocates the next morning, had zero training in trauma response. The person told me I should’ve been on birth control even though I’m lesbian, used graphic language, and asserted things about my experience that I didn’t tell her. She tried repeatedly to get me to contact the NYPD, which I declined repeatedly. She finally told me she would connect me with someone from SVR who would call me back “within 20 minutes.” An hour later, I was woken up by that phone call after finally falling asleep.
I was never offered in-person support. I was never offered going to get medical care. When I asked if Columbia had free STD testing or emergency contraception so my parents wouldn’t see it, the answer I got was “I don’t think so,” and as a result, I got neither. I ended up paying $400 out of pocket a week later to get STD testing at some random clinic because health services had no appointments, so I couldn’t do it at Columbia.
I got into Columbia Psychological Services thanks to SVR, and was told instantly that it was only a “temporary resource,” even though I can’t afford outside counseling. Disability Services took weeks to get back to me about granting me extensions for work I missed, and only gave me those accommodations after I threatened a Title IX complaint if they didn’t grant them to me.
I knew there was no point in reporting my assault. I couldn’t see his face clearly, and even if I could, it’s not like Columbia does anything about it. And besides, I’d made myself a target by being openly lesbian and an activist. I washed my sheets instead of getting a rape kit. Despite knowing what survivors are “supposed” to do, I did everything “wrong.” So I didn’t report.
Last December, I joined activists and survivors advocating for ways to improve Columbia’s sexual violence response in a meeting with EVP of University Life/Rules Administrator Suzanne Goldberg. Goldberg told us she needed to hear specific survivors’ experiences in order to listen to any of the demands we were making, so another survivor and I started sharing our experiences. Goldberg cut me off and said, “I can’t comment on anyone’s individual experience.” So she won’t make changes without hearing anyone’s individual experiences, but won’t listen to anyone’s individual experiences.
I was assaulted again a couple weeks later, which leaves scars on my body to this day. I actually ended up making a collage out of the various pictures I took of the bruises and scars on my body from my two Columbia assaults and a watercolor painting I did of my room. I don’t know why I bothered to take photos or do this art piece. There’s something I don’t like about the idea of this all being silenced or fading away just because the bruises fade, you know? But photos don’t fade, and as terrifying as it is to post this in here, it feels necessary somehow.
I wonder if that would have happened if Columbia had given me support after my first assault. Maybe if I had reported it, it wouldn’t have happened to me again.
After the second time, I went and got a rape kit at the hospital, but I still didn’t want to report. I knew I couldn’t call Columbia’s hotline because they’d probably just blame me again.
At the beginning of this semester, I got an email from Office of Gender-Based Misconduct case manager Adrienne Blount. She CC’ed my academic adviser, a person I don’t have a relationship with, on a letter that said I “may have been involved in behavior that meets the definition of Gender-Based Misconduct.” I was involved in my rape. It was mybehavior that was part of what happened to me. (My academic adviser later told me this is the same letter the Office of Gender-Based Misconduct sends to perpetrators. Think about that — they send the same letter to survivors that they send to perpetrators.) I called Adrienne and told her that I didn’t want to speak to her again.
A couple months later, a bunch of activists on campus decided we wanted to see our Student Conduct files under FERPA so we’d know what Columbia had that they might use against us in future disciplinary hearings. I figured there’d be nothing in my file. After all, I hadn’t done anything to break the rules. What would be in a file about my conduct?
I was shocked when I went in and discovered things in my conduct file about my rapes, things that were supposed to be “confidential.” I found two reports filed about my assault from mandated reporters, both making up inaccurate details about my rapes that I never told anyone. There were communications from the head of Residential Life, Scott Helfrich, telling my RA to check in with me but lie to me about why she was checking in with me. (How he found out about my assault, I haven’t a clue — he never responded to my email asking how he knew.) The letter Adrienne Blount sent me and my academic adviser was in there, along with email communications between me and Adrienne and also me and my adviser. There was also a snarky description of the phone call I had by Adrienne written by Adrienne in the file in which she repeatedly made notes like “(one-sided)” after describing something I said to indicate that I was rude or hadn’t listened to her. This information is there for anyone to see in the Registrar’s office, anyone in Student Conduct and Community Standards, and potentially any disciplinary panels if I ever got in trouble for protesting, including Suzanne Goldberg.
I asked Adrienne and the head of Student Conduct and Community Standards, Jeri Henry, to remove the information from my file because it violated confidentiality. Both told me no, and Jeri Henry told me that if I wanted it removed, I’d have to sue. What’s more, Adrienne told me my requests to have it removed were also being put in my file.
A couple weeks later, Suzanne Goldberg and Suraiya, the interim head of SVR, posted a statement arguing that a 24/7 rape crisis center wasn’t necessary and students were rude for asking for it, and further, that me telling people the hotline didn’t offer trained 24/7 support was hurtful and inaccurate. I got really angry and sent Goldberg and Suraiya an email reminding them of my story that they clearly hadn’t listened to.
In talking to Suraiya after, it become clear SVR had listened to my “confidential” hotline call without my permission rather than just believing what I said about my experience with the hotline. So much for confidentiality.
Around this time, I found out Columbia’s Title IX coordinator, Melissa Rooker, had silently left Columbia. Goldberg was then asked who the current Title IX coordinator was, since Columbia is legally mandated to have a Title IX coordinator at all times. Goldberg said she is the interim Title IX coordinator.
So now the person whose policies I’m protesting has the power to discipline me for protesting, and if I complain about that being a Title IX violation, she’s in charge of adjudicating that Title IX complaint about herself. I asked her to resign, and she never responded. I told her I’m guaranteed counseling under Title IX, and she said she doesn’t think that, even though I pointed out where in Title IX it says that. (And she’s the interim Title IX coordinator — shouldn’t she know what’s in Title IX?)
When I told my parents a few weeks ago about my assault, they freaked out. My mom told me that since I didn’t tell her earlier, we now “don’t have a relationship,” and she wrote me a snarky letter that said by not wanting to talk about my assault, I was trying to “control her like a marionette.” She and her boyfriend, who I hate, told my dad not to give me a key to his house so I can’t go there when I want to escape from them this summer. I never thought I’d find a reason to miss Columbia after everything that happened this year, but now I do.
And so here I am, typing up a long story about all the ways in which Columbia managed to fuck me over without me even filing a complaint or going to Public Safety. And if Columbia can be this screwed up without me even reporting my rapes, with my rapes being completely un-ambiguous and physically violent (unlike most sexual assaults, which are less likely to be believed), I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who report their assaults, especially those that don’t fit the stereotype of what sexual assault is “supposed” to look like.
I write this knowing Suzanne Goldberg has the power to come after me for naming her in this. I write this knowing Adrienne Blount will probably put a copy of this in my Student Conduct file, assuming she realizes who I am. I write this knowing neither of them will give a damn about the ways they’ve failed me.
But I don’t care. People like to insist Columbia has fixed itself. It’s not fixed. This happened this year. And there’s a problem when you have people telling queer survivors they should’ve been on birth control and administrators who were supposed to be queer rights activists protecting those homophobic comments. There’s a problem when a survivor’s assault is linked to their conduct. There’s a problem when survivors can’t get physical or mental healthcare despite Columbia’s $9.6 billion endowment.
And there’s a big problem when survivors are more likely to face disciplinary action for sharing their stories than their rapists are likely to face disciplinary action for raping them.
This is the Columbia they don’t tell you about on tours or during Days on Campus. This is my reality. And I’ll be damned before I let any administrator intimidate me into silence.