by re:claim magazine
[Content warning: sexual violence, mental health, suicide, policing, police violence]
Editor’s note: We have changed student names to protect those referenced from retaliation. All students referenced gave us express consent to tell their stories.
After a Columbia University student sexually assaulted Ann, she had a panic attack.
Ann’s partner, unsure of what to do in the confines of their shared Columbia graduate student apartment, called for medical attention. The responding Public Safety officers threatened Ann with expulsion if she did not go to St. Luke’s, the hospital closest to Columbia. Low-income, in debt, and terrified of losing access to her education, Ann complied.
A Columbia staff member demanded St. Luke’s institutionalize Ann overnight and told Ann she must stay at the hospital if she wanted to remain a Columbia student. Even though St. Luke’s released Ann the next day after agreeing she was never a danger to herself or others, Ann remains thousands of dollars in medical debt from the experience. Columbia refuses to reimburse her.
Ann’s story is unfortunately not uncommon at Columbia. In the last two months, over a dozen students have come forward with stories of Columbia University administrators threatening them with disciplinary action for speaking out about — or seeking confidential help for — sexual violence and mental health concerns.
The retaliation Columbia students describe experiencing due to seeking out campus healthcare cannot be divorced from a larger history of United States healthcare being subject to policing. Stories of the New York Police Department (NYPD) shooting mentally ill Black people when responding to calls for help are not uncommon. In addition, survivors of sexual violence often face disbelief or threats when reporting assaults; police even charge some survivors with filing false reports about allegations that turn out to be true.
Columbia has a longstanding relationship with the NYPD, from hiring former officers to relying on the NYPD to break up student protests. This relationship permeates current healthcare on Columbia’s campus.
When students call Columbia University Emergency Medical Service (CUEMS) for an ambulance, the phone number students call is the same as Public Safety’s phone number. Public Safety can reroute the call to the NYPD at any time without the consent of the student calling. The uncertainty of whether or not calling will lead to the NYPD showing up leaves many students, particularly students of color, in precarious positions when facing medical emergencies.
One current Resident Advisor (RA) recalls Columbia administrators pressuring RAs to work with Public Safety during RA training.
“They had us attend a presentation by Public Safety during which they talk about RAs’ roles in supposedly helping Public Safety enforce order and security on campus,” the RA told re:claim in February 2018. “Nowhere in this is any acknowledgment of the fact that many students on campus, particularly Black and brown students, have experienced racial profiling, harassment, and violence from Public Safety.”
The RA continued, “I fear for my own safety and that of my friends and peers when I am forced to interact with Public Safety or the NYPD. Knowing that the phone number for CUEMS and Public Safety are the same, how can I feel safe calling these resources for my residents or myself? If I call campus resources for residents in crisis, I must do so with the knowledge that these resources can endanger my residents’ well-being, their academic careers, and even their lives.”
The stress Columbia’s relationship with policing puts upon students in need of help is especially concerning in light of Columbia’s mental health crisis.
During the 2016-2017 school year, Columbia University lost six students to suicide and a seventh to an overdose. In the aftermath of several suicides clustered around Winter Break, Columbia administrators promised to address Columbia’s stress culture. Columbia then hired the Jed Foundation to analyze campus mental health practices (ignoring the Jed Foundation’s numerous conflicts of interest).
In February 2018, the Columbia administration released a broad list of recommendations from the Jed Foundation to improve mental health on campus. James Valentini, the Dean of Columbia College who announced the recommendations, failed to respond to a request from re:claim via email for information on specific steps Columbia planned to take to complete their goals.
re:claim was unable to find a United States post-secondary institution with more suicides in a single academic year than Columbia University had in 2016-2017; the closest in recent years was Massachusetts Institute of Technology at four.
Yet despite the rash of completed suicides at Columbia in 2016-2017, reports from students we received indicate Columbia administrators appear to be focused more on protecting themselves from liability than on student health.
During Peter’s second year as an undergraduate student in Columbia College, a peer in his dorm saw him crying from a distance and reported it to his RA. That night, Peter claims, the NYPD entered his room and forcibly escorted him to St. Luke’s. Peter says he was not allowed to return to campus until he peed in a cup, presumably to be tested for consuming drugs and alcohol underage. (The test was negative.) Afterwards, Residential Life mandated Peter seek counseling.
To make matters worse, what happened to Peter appeared to be public knowledge among administrators.
“It seemed that [administrators and staff members] had access to the hospital records since they commented on my experience,” Peter said in a November 2017 chat exchange with re:claim.
Peter also states Residential Life staff did not accompany him to the hospital, even though senior Residential Life staff insisted (off the record) in November 2017 that they always accompany students to the hospital during what they deem to be “mental health crises.”
Columbia’s definition of “crises,” however, appears muddy. Other undergraduate students describe Public Safety and the NYPD physically dragging them out of their dorm rooms in the middle of the night for calling Columbia’s 24/7 Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) hotline. One student says officers removed her from her dorm room half-naked in front of her suitemates even though she was not a danger to herself or others. Several students confirm Columbia personnel escorted them to St. Luke’s under threat of expulsion, with no offer of paying for the resulting medical bills.
Threats during mental health crises appear to be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to retaliation at Columbia. When re:claim interviewed students about their experiences with retaliation on campus, students described Student Conduct and Community Standards (SCCS), the office at Columbia that investigates gender-based violence, retaliating against students for reporting assaults — confirmed in SCCS’s investigative reports from individual cases provided to re:claim.
One Columbia College student, Riley, states SCCS case manager Adrienne Blount threatened her with disciplinary action in 2017 after Riley told a friend at a party that Joe, a fellow student who arrived at the same party as Riley, abused her and previously followed her. Riley asked the friend to tell Joe to leave due to an existing No-Contact Directive between Riley and Joe.
After the party, Riley claims, Blount summoned Riley to a meeting at SCCS and told her if Riley told anyone else Joe had abused her, she would be charged with retaliation. Blount argued telling others about Joe’s abuse and having others ask him to leave the party counted as “communicating through a third party” with Joe — a violation of the No-Contact Directive. (SCCS personnel also insisted Joe following Riley into the party was not a violation of the No-Contact Directive; Columbia administrators confirmed to re:claim that No-Contact Directives do not forbid a Respondent from physically following a Complainant in public spaces.)
Columbia’s Gender-based Misconduct Policy states:
Retaliation includes threatening, intimidating, harassing, or any other conduct that would discourage a reasonable person from seeking services; receiving protective measures and accommodations; reporting gender-based misconduct; or participating in the disciplinary process as a Complainant, Respondent, Witness, Third-Party Reporter or Advisor.
While anti-retaliation policies are geared toward encouraging students to come forward when they experience gender-based violence, in Riley’s case, SCCS interpreted Columbia’s anti-retaliation policy as aimed at the Complainant.
After Riley challenged Columbia’s threat, Columbia’s Title IX coordinator, Marjory Fisher, backed down and agreed to consider re-opening Riley’s complaint about Joe. (Riley says she was subsequently offered a new No-Contact Directive, and chose that option over a full investigation.) But while Columbia backtracked in Riley’s case, other students claim SCCS has investigated them for retaliation for reporting a fellow student for sexual assault.
Columbia’s Gender-based Misconduct Policy affirms that “reports made in good faith, even if the allegations are ultimately determined to be inaccurate, are not considered retaliation.”
However, one student states that not only did SCCS investigate them for retaliation for reporting an assault, but their perpetrator was never investigated for the sexual assault itself. Investigative reports from SCCS confirm this has occurred in student gender-based violence cases at Columbia.
Title IX, the federal law that mandates schools provide students equal access to educational opportunities regardless of sex, prohibits schools from retaliating against students for filing Gender-based Misconduct reports.
Nonprofit organization Know Your IX, which outlines Title IX policies, explains, “If a school discourages or threatens you about discussing complaints of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, or sexual violence, this may be considered retaliation.”
Additionally, the Supreme Court confirmed in 2005 that retaliation against complainants in gender-based misconduct or sex discrimination cases is a Title IX violation. In Jackson v. Birmingham Bd. of Educ., 544 U.S. 167, 174 (2005), the court held that Title IX’s private right action includes lawsuits for retaliation:
Retaliation against a person because that person has complained of sex discrimination is another form of intentional sex discrimination encompassed by Title IX’s private cause of action. Retaliation is, by definition, an intentional act. It is a form of “discrimination” because the complainant is being subjected to differential treatment.
Complainants in campus violence cases also argue Columbia administrators have retaliated against them by implying they should leave Columbia after they discuss campus violence.
Emma reported multiple sexual assaults to Columbia staff members in 2015 and subsequently spoke out about feeling mistreated on campus. After writing an email to SCCS describing her safety concerns in September 2016, Emma alleges Jeri Henry, the Associate Vice President of SCCS, told her, “Due to your activism and writing [about sexual assault on campus and queer rights], are you really happy here? Are you ready to engage in Columbia’s rigorous academic program?” (The student’s lawyer, who was on speakerphone during the meeting, took notes on the exact wording of the comment.)
Henry’s email to Emma’s attorney and Public Safety on September 14, 2016 confirms and defends this comment. The email further informs Emma’s lawyer that the lawyer should not email Henry again, but communicate with Columbia’s legal representation.
Emma’s academic advisor from the Center for Student Advising (CSA) also asks Emma on a March 2016 recording about why Emma has not transferred out of Columbia. Emma says her advisor made similar comments, in addition to pressuring her to take Medical Leave, in response to her first assault disclosure in October 2015.
Another student who talked to re:claim says they reported their sexual assault to SCCS. When the student refused to go on Medical Leave after reporting, the student claims Housing removed them from their dorm because Housing personnel claimed the student’s assault made others on their floor feel uncomfortable.
Several other students state to re:claim that they fear losing housing if they talk about their assaults, disabilities, or mental health issues.
And Ann, the student forcibly institutionalized when she had a panic attack after her sexual assault, did not escape further retaliation after her hospitalization.
Errors and clear conflicts of interest riddled Ann’s appeal process when Columbia found her perpetrator not-responsible. Ann argues investigators applied definitions from an updated version of the Gender-based Misconduct policy to her case, but failed to give her the rights outlined in the new policy, such as the right to challenge the contents of SCCS’s investigative report prior to a hearing.
After analyzing several documents, re:claim confirmed SCCS’s investigative report for Ann’s case included several blatant inaccuracies and procedural violations that cast Ann in a negative light, such as inaccurately listing Ann’s GPA as below a 3.0 and including mention of her psychiatric hospitalization as evidence of Ann’s lack of credibility without Ann’s consent.
The HIPAA Privacy Rule, a national standard governing health records, prohibits the sharing of medical information without the consent of the patient except in rare circumstances, which should have prevented information about Ann’s hospitalization from making it into her file. In addition, Columbia’s Gender-based Misconduct Policy outlines that “each party has the right to request that evidence regarding his or her mental health diagnosis and/or treatment be excluded from consideration when responsibility is being determined.” Finally, New York State law Enough is Enough, enacted in 2015, states that students in campus gender-based misconduct proceedings in the state of New York have the right “to exclude […] their own mental health diagnosis and/or treatment from admittance in the institution disciplinary stage that determines responsibility.”
Administrator responses to Ann’s appeal corroborate Ann’s assertion that she was never afforded the opportunity to challenge the contents of her file, and the case proceeded with Ann’s hospitalization — and incorrect GPA, among other factual errors — in the investigative report panelists considered when determining responsibility.
In Dean Gillian Lester’s written denial of Ann’s appeal on the ground of procedural errors in September 2015, Lester argues Ann “had full access to this process under the policy in effect during the time of the investigation.”
“As the Law School dean, Lester had conflict of interest in deciding whether to prioritize my rights over my assailant, a fellow law student,” Ann told re:claim. “She also failed in her ethical duty to uphold the tenets of fairness and due process that are expected of her as a lawyer and school administrator.”
When Ann pushed back against how Columbia treated her, Columbia administrators pressured Ann to leave Columbia.
The then-Dean of Students at Columbia Law School, Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin, is heard on a recording in May 2015 pressuring Ann to withdraw from Columbia due to her assault complaint.
After Ann joined anti-sexual violence group No Red Tape in Fall 2015 and spoke publicly about her case, Greenberg-Kobrin instructed Ann to leave the university on a “visiting students” program. re:claim confirmed this contact in Ann’s phone call logs and from a meeting recording in which Greenberg-Kobrin attempts to bribe Ann to leave by offering to excuse her from a mandatory Professional Responsibility class.
Without Ann’s knowledge and consent, Ann says, Greenberg-Kobrin got university administrators at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Temple Law School to break their rules and have Ann admitted on short notice as a visiting student. When Ann tried to register for Spring classes at Columbia, Columbia waitlisted her for all but one class, so she was forced to spend Spring 2016 at Temple University.
Columbia has also allegedly pressured students to drop out due to mental health concerns.
One student with a disability states their school’s dean reprimanded them for their disability making it impossible to complete an assignment on time. The student claims the dean pressured the student to take Medical Leave, or indicated the student could face suspension or expulsion.
Another student, Nina, missed a midterm due to experiencing a dissociative episode in Fall 2017. The professor for Nina’s class reported the missed midterm to SCCS for reasons that remain unclear (and, according to Nina, in violation of the professor’s departmental policy regarding missed exams).
Confidential investigative transcripts from SCCS and notes on Nina’s case, provided to re:claim, reveal SCCS staff members, including Senior Director Kelly Joyce, told Nina she needed proof of her episode of dissociation despite Nina’s longstanding relationship with CPS — proof many students with mental health disabilities are unable to provide after an exacerbation of symptoms.
Internal SCCS notes state, “SD Joyce said that some of this story did not make sense and it does not seem plausible. SD Joyce said it was concerning that [Nina] could provide no corroborating evidence.”
Nina explains that out of fear of being unable to provide proof beyond evidence of her existing medical condition, she manufactured a fake train ticket to account for her absence. SCCS asked Nina to take Medical Leave. When Nina refused to take Medical Leave, SCCS suspended her for the following semester. Nina appealed the sanction in December 2017, but her dean rejected the appeal on the grounds that the dean felt Nina’s experience did not merit Nina missing the midterm and manufacturing evidence.
Meanwhile, Lisa, another Columbia undergraduate, says she told a friend she had chronic depression when she was a first year student. Lisa alleges three members of Residential Life and an advisor from CSA subsequently summoned her to a meeting, told her to take Medical Leave, and informed her that if she talked to any Columbia friends about her mental health again, she would be brought through Dean’s Discipline and potentially expelled.
It is unclear how Residential Life and CSA planned to discipline Lisa; after conducting an analysis of Columbia’s policies and discussing the case with senior Residential Life staff, re:claim cannot find a substantive basis for these threats in Columbia’s policies.
“[I’ve] literally been diagnosed with PTSD (by both Columbia doctors and outside) for how Columbia treated me,” Lisa told re:claim in November 2017.
Income also plays an enormous factor in how students are treated while seeking help at Columbia.
Elliot, a low-income international student, had his GPA drop from above a 3.6 to a 2.0 after he experienced intimate partner violence. Despite knowing his need for support and accommodations pursuant to Title IX, SCCS placed Elliot on academic suspension. SCCS only gave Elliot 72 hours to appeal, but Elliot did not have access to the internet, and SCCS denied an appeal extension when Elliot eventually saw the sanction. With no money nor student visa, Elliot had no way of fighting his case, advocating for his Title IX rights, or returning to Columbia. Elliot never returned to campus.
It turns out Columbia making it impossible for students to return from leave might be a widespread phenomenon.
Allan Cassorla, the CPS official in charge of granting students permission to return from Medical Leave, reportedly told several students they were inherently unstable due to their mental health conditions and medications, or refused to provide an explanation at all when denying their applications for return.
One student who went on Medical Leave states Cassorla refused to meet with her in a timely manner to confirm her return, causing her to be blocked from registering for courses until the semester was about to begin and therefore making it impossible for her to get into the courses she needed to take.
These stories do not even begin to capture the experiences of graduate students at Columbia, who have no anti-retaliation protections because Columbia refuses to bargain with the graduate student union.
Following national outcry regarding sexual harassment on college campuses, former tenured professor Karen Kelsky created an anonymous spreadsheet for graduate students nationwide to share their stories of sexual harassment. Columbia appears in over a dozen complaints on the spreadsheet, often involving professors and department chairs retaliating or threatening to retaliate against students.
One complaint on the survey says a tenured professor asked a graduate student out on a date after inappropriately making sexual advances. The student declined. Immediately following this refusal, the professor gave the student a “C” on a term paper. (Another faculty member overturned the grade.)
Another student alleges an endowed Columbia University department chair and senior faculty member sexually harassed them; the student felt unable to reject the chair’s advances because the chair was writing the student a letter of recommendation for graduate programs.
A third graduate student reports a Columbia professor sexually harassed them. The student felt forced to comply with the professor’s demands because the professor told them complying was the only way to obtain a necessary research grant.
All told, the stories re:claim heard from over a dozen current students and recent alumni implicate AVP of SCCS Jeri Henry, assorted staff members from SCCS, Allan Cassorla and other doctors at CPS and Furman, advisors at CSA, school deans, Residential Life staff, Housing staff, faculty, department chairs, and University Life staff (including the Title IX office) in several potential violations of Title IX and Title II.
Students referenced in this article provided documentation to confirm their claims on the condition that we not release sensitive documents publicly, including (but not limited to) recordings of meetings with administrators, email exchanges with Columbia faculty and staff members, witness statements from those present during forced removals from dorms, medical documentation, SCCS investigatory reports, and Dean’s Discipline records.
The students who spoke to re:claim about their experiences expressed fear of reprisal for speaking out, several referencing AVP Jeri Henry (who oversees Dean’s Discipline) as a source of anxiety. One student only spoke to us on the condition we communicate via Signal, an encrypted messaging application. All students involved asked to remain anonymous. Several other students shared their experiences anonymously but declined to give consent to have their stories included in this article, and are therefore not the basis for any experiences outlined above.
While the fact pattern we uncovered of administrative retaliation appears at odds with several federal laws, members of the Columbia University administration appear defensive or indifferent when students raise questions about retaliation on campus.
Executive Vice President of University Life and the person in charge of supervising SCCS, Suzanne Goldberg, initially would not comment on the state of healthcare and retaliation at Columbia. Goldberg insisted that despite her job as a person who provides direct services to undergraduate students, she “does not meet with individual students.”
EVP Goldberg subsequently agreed to meet with a group of students advocating for increased healthcare on campus. EVP Goldberg is heard on the February 7, 2018 recording of that meeting denying knowledge of students experiencing retaliation for reporting mental health issues and sexual assault.
Title IX coordinator Marjory Fisher, who agreed to meet regarding the concerns brought up in this article, stated on a recording from November 20, 2017 she would “have to look into the cases,” but pointed out she was unable to comment on specific instances of violence on campus. (However, she did dispute the accuracy of Riley’s claims.)
Residential Life staff would only speak off the record, but a senior Residential Life staff member admitted that, if true, several facts in the stories referenced above would be in violation of Columbia University policies and contrary to trainings Residential Life staff receive on best practices. The staff member acknowledged coordinating with the NYPD in situations in which Residential Life feels like students must go to the hospital, but pointed out Residential Life is attempting to separate itself from the NYPD.
Associate Vice President of SCCS, Jeri Henry, agreed to meet with five graduate and undergraduate students regarding retaliation and No-Contact Directives on January 19, 2018. The recording of the meeting with Henry reveals defensive and even threatening exchanges between Henry and students.
When one student asked why AVP Henry and other meeting participant Marjory Fisher appeared unaware of a pattern of retaliation, Henry responded, “I think that that’s actually a little disrespectful, honestly. I do know about the cases that are happening in my office. I think that the way you’re characterizing things is not the way that we followed up with things.”
Near the end of the meeting, when a different student pointed out the difficulty of approaching Henry, referencing a time when Henry locked SCCS to prevent students from delivering a petition to staff members in October 2016, Henry replied, “We have video of that too, where you were yelling profanities at the door and were trying to pull our door open.”
Witnesses, photographs, and video footage of the event in question corroborate the student’s account of what occurred and contradict Henry’s allegations of students attempting to break into her office and yelling profanities.
In addition, Henry justified the retaliation one student in the room stated they experienced. Henry confirmed the existence of the disciplinary charge on the student’s record after the student mentioned it, and implicitly argued the student’s Gender-based Misconduct complaint was not made in good-faith — therefore disclosing her opinions of the student’s case in front of peers without the student’s consent.
“That was a FERPA violation,” one of the students in the meeting told re:claim, referring to Henry’s actions. “A student can talk about their own case, but it’s not like administrators can then reveal details to other students about a particular student’s case without permission.”
Indeed, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives students “the right to provide written consent before the university discloses personally identifiable information (PII) from the student’s education records,” with a few exceptions, none of which include disclosing information in front of peers.
In response to the stories above, several student groups have expressed concern about Columbia’s retaliation against students and policing of mental health.
Anti-sexual violence group No Red Tape released a demand asking Columbia University to separate healthcare from policing and retaliation. They further asked Columbia make healthcare accessible 24/7, in line with the services provided at several of Columbia’s peer institutions:
We demand 24/7, in-person, unrestricted health care, including counseling, trauma support, and medical services, for all members of the Columbia community. All health staff should undergo background checks, with zero tolerance for gender-based misconduct, and be adequately trained in cultural competency. In order for health care to be fully accessible, it should be independent from all systems of policing, including the NYPD and Public Safety. Students should not be threatened with discipline for disclosing experiences of gender-based misconduct, mental health concerns, or disabilities to peers, family members, faculty, or administrators.
However, in response to concerns about the accessibility of Columbia’s resources, which student groups first raised to EVP Goldberg in a 2015 demand for more accessible 24/7 trauma response, Goldberg insisted resources like Sexual Violence Response are accessible to students 24/7.
In an email reply to student demands for 24/7 services in 2016, EVP Goldberg stated, “We have great concern that the current inaccurate representation that SVR does not offer 24-hour services is harmful to survivors seeking support. To misrepresent what SVR offers also is a disservice to the many student activists, student peer counselors and advocates who helped create, build and staff Columbia’s Rape Crisis Center for the past 24 years.”
Contrary to EVP Goldberg’s assertions that SVR offers 24/7 support in her 2016 email and in the February 2018 meeting with students, Lisa, the student threatened with disciplinary action for telling friends about her chronic depression, informed re:claim that SVR still does not provide services to students after hours. Lisa states that when she was assaulted during a weekend, she asked SVR staff to meet her in-person. However, the SVR person on-call told her they could not meet in-person during the weekend (and implied Lisa was to blame for her assault). Lisa further alleges the SVR staff member pressured her to report her assault to the police.
Emma, who also called SVR’s hotline, similarly alleges SVR pressuring her to report her assault to the police. (When Emma asked several Columbia administrators for the recording of her own SVR hotline call in 2016 and 2017 to verify her claims, Columbia administrators refused to provide the call recording despite admitting they had it in their possession.)
While students continue to advocate for more healthcare, less policing, and more anti-retaliation protections, it is unclear whether Columbia intends to make any changes.
Near the end of the recorded meeting with students in January 2018, AVP Jeri Henry argued, “We have a great [Gender-based Misconduct] policy in place compared to other colleges and universities.”
When a student in the meeting pointed out that the “bar is low,” Henry laughed and responded, “So low, right? No, it’s great. It’s a great policy. We have a great policy in place.”
But for Ann, Peter, Riley, Emma, Nina, Lisa, Elliot, and the other students re:claim talked to, it appears Columbia’s policy falls far short of providing support and protection.
As one student put it in response to Henry’s comment, “How can the policy be ‘great’ if some nights I feel like I’m choosing between suicide and expulsion?”