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Students accuse Columbia University of mishandling sexual assaults

By Rande Iaboni, CNN
updated 9:55 PM EDT, Thu May 1, 2014
  • Twenty-three students allege Columbia University failed to protect victims of sexual assault
  • Complaint filed with U.S. Department of Education also includes Barnard College
  • Columbia says it hasn't seen complaint, can't comment on allegations
  • Students: "Columbia is more willing to silence and punish survivors and their supporters"

(CNN) -- A group of 23 students has filed a federal complaint against Columbia University alleging the school failed to protect victims of sexual assault, according to a statement from the students.

The complaint alleges the Ivy League university discouraged students from reporting sexual assaults, allowed perpetrators to remain on campus, sanctioned inadequate disciplinary actions for perpetrators and discriminated against students based on their sexual orientation, according to a statement from the students who are calling themselves Our Stories CU.

The students collectively filed the complaint Thursday with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging violations of Title II, Title IX and the Clery Act against Columbia and Barnard College, the affiliated women's school.

Title II is a part of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Title IX is part of the Higher Education Act. The Clery Act is a federal law that requires colleges and universities across the United States to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses.

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In a statement Friday to CNN, Columbia said it had been informed of the complaint but it had not seen it and could not comment on the allegations.

"Sexual assault and gender misconduct are unacceptable, including on college and university campuses," Columbia said in a statement. "We have been working with students, faculty and staff to make that emphatically clear on our campus and have already taken the first of a series of significant new measures dedicated to preventing such sexual misconduct, supporting survivors, and improving adjudication of these painful cases."

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The students' statement described the complaint in detail, but the group refused to release any copies, saying it wanted to protect those who do not want their names publicized. As a policy, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights does not release information to the public until after a formal investigation has been opened into a complaint.

"Columbia is more willing to silence and punish survivors and their supporters than serial rapists," the students said in their statement. "Because of this reality, students have decided to file ... (the complaint) to hold the university accountable for its deliberate mishandling of campus sexual violence and mental health."

Their statement details multiple allegations, ranging from one student being denied mental health accommodations and another transgender student having an attack dismissed "because it didn't fit the normative 'boy-rapes-girl' narrative."

"I don't trust the University to take my experience or my safety more seriously than they take their own public image," one complainant said in the students' statement.

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a Columbia junior and lead complainant, told CNN on Friday that activists from universities across the country offered plenty of advice and support to the group, saying, "It's absolutely a national issue."

Ridolfi-Starr said she was sexually assaulted the summer after her freshman year at Columbia and said the primary goal of the complaint is to pressure the university to make reforms.

Ridolfi-Starr said that four more students reached out to her Friday asking to join in the complaint and that the group plans to file an addendum over the next few days.

The students' actions come on the heels of a similar complaint against Harvard University in early April. The Harvard Crimson, the university's daily student newspaper, published an open letter from a student citing repeated misconduct on the part of administrators after reporting a sexual assault.

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