A History of Red Tape

A History of Red Tape

Thirty years of anti-sexual assault activism at Columbia

Published on December 4, 2014

W

hen Jenn Glaser, CC ’00, made her way to a University Senate meeting in November 1999—just days after a senate task force had released a draft sexual assault policy that didn’t meet any of the campus activists’ requests—she anticipated some student support.

But what she did not expect was the 400 students who marched from the Barnard gates to the meeting at the Law School, carrying signs constructed out of red tape that read, “A University must be anti-rape,” and chanting, “Red tape can’t cover up rape.”

The image would be familiar to any student at Columbia today. Red tape, chosen for its powerful visual imagery and as a symbol of administrative bureaucracy, has since re-emerged as a symbol of the anti-sexual assault activism movement on campus. Students adorned their graduation caps with red tape at University Commencement last spring and affixed red tape to Alma Mater’s mouth during the 2014 Stand with Survivors rally.

ABOVE: Lead photo by Maggie Mallernee

Red tape is just one of the things today’s movement has in common with its predecessors. Current activists said that recent waves of activism—from Barnard’s first Take Back the Night in 1988 to University Senate debates on sexual assault policy in the 1990s—have informed the present-day push for policy reform.

In the Morning Sunshine, After: The documentary below examines the evolution of Take Back the Night at Columbia and Barnard, focusing on how the march has shifted from a women-only event to a gender-neutral event.

“This movement has been happening every five or six years at Columbia’s campus,” Sejal Singh, CC ’15 and one of the organizers of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, said. “Student activism is inherently cyclical—the University can wait out the loudest voices. So we are looking for ways to institutionalize change.”

Taking back the night

One of the early instances of anti-sexual assault activism on campus—Take Back the Night, the annual march designed to reclaim the streets as a safe space for women—has become an institution at Columbia and Barnard, with students marching through the streets around campus each spring. In contrast to the established group today, organizers said the first march was simply thrown together in an effort to raise awareness of sexual violence on campus.

“Student activism is inherently cyclical—the University can wait out the loudest voices. So we are looking for ways to institutionalize change.”

—Sejal Singh, CC ’15 and CASV organizer

Students gathered in front of the Barnard gates late on the night of Tuesday, April 20, 1988, anxiously hoping for other women to join their march in the city streets. To their surprise, over 350 women appeared, with 50 more men joining the inclusive speak-out at the end.

“At first, nobody wanted to get up and talk, but then, once it got rolling, it was hard to end it,” Leah Kopperman, BC ’89 and one of the organizers of the first Take Back the Night march, said. “There were so many people telling their stories and very clearly for the first time. Some of them hadn’t told anybody.”

Columbia’s involvement with Take Back The Night began in 1988 after Kopperman attended a Seven Sisters conference at Radcliffe College. At the conference, students from Radcliffe suggested that all of the Seven Sisters should bring Take Back The Night events to their campuses. Kopperman suggested the idea at Barnard, and after other students expressed interest, she found herself leading the organizing of the event.

Since the Seven Sisters conference was in February, and the planned date for the march was in April, Kopperman said that the amount of planning involved was minimal: getting a police permit, finding a microphone to use at the speak-out after the march, and creating and distributing flyers.

“Nobody knew what to expect because it was the first time that we had done it, and we certainly weren’t sure how it would be received across campus,” Deborah Goldstein, BC ’90 and another organizer of the first march, said.

While many students came to the march and speak out, Kopperman and Goldstein said that they felt an overall lack of support from administrators, and that no administrators attended the first march.

“I don’t know if they didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, or they didn’t know what they could possibly say or offer,” Goldstein said. “It was kind of shocking.”

After the rally and speak-out, organizers realized the need to continue Take Back the Night and expand it to include more people and issues.

“We planned for the second year in 1989 to have a whole week of events, and we had speakers and workshops,” Kopperman said.

In addition to the march, events at the 1989 march featured speakers from the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the Urban Women’s Shelter as well as workshops about violence against women of color and family violence.

Graphic by Kenza Ben Brahim

Take Back the Night is now an annual event. The most recent march, which took place in April and drew over 150 sexual violence survivors, allies, and activists, followed almost a semester’s worth of activism and included a call for the administration to change the way Columbia handles sexual assault.

“I’m so happy that that’s going on on one level,” Kopperman said of the current activism at Columbia. “On another level, I can’t believe it’s 27 years later and it’s still such a big problem. I mean, now, what’s different is that there’s an active conversation going on with administration and that they clearly are making efforts.”

Kopperman said that she was inspired by Emma Sulkowicz’s, CC ’15, Carry That Weight project, in which she carries a mattress everywhere she goes on campus as long as her alleged rapist remains at the University.

“Now Emma’s project is just bringing so much attention in particular to Columbia as a center of this. I think it’s awesome,” Kopperman said.

“At some point, I’d like to come up to campus on a day when they have those group carries to just be a part of it. So I love that that’s going on, but it does make me sad that it’s still such a big issue and there’s still such a big struggle around it. Because, I mean, how many more women is that that have suffered over the years.”

Students—some with red tape over their mouths—protest changes to the University's Sexual Misconduct Policy during a University Senate meeting in November 1999. (Photo illustration by Steven Lau)

Crafting a policy

Sulkowicz reported her sexual assault to Columbia in April 2013. But after going through the University’s adjudication process, Columbia found her alleged rapist not responsible. Now, Sulkowicz is drawing national attention and leading student activists in pushing for policy reform.

In August 2014, the University unveiled its new sexual assault policy, which made some significant changes to how Columbia handles cases of sexual assault. But student activists said that the policy ultimately fell short of their requests and that they felt cut out of the process.

Columbia didn’t have a University-wide sexual assault policy until 1995, when the University Senate drafted and then passed the policy.

After months of internal disagreements surrounding the role of outside counsel and “gatekeepers,” or deans identified to receive and review requests for hearings, the University Senate’s task force recommended that Columbia establish a clear and concise definition of sexual assault and that Columbia provide three disciplinary channels for students: mediation through the Ombuds Office, Dean’s Discipline, or a hearing panel.

While a new policy was being implemented, activist groups began taking shape. One of those groups, founded in 1995 by Michael Brous, CC ’98, was Columbia Men Against Violence—a group meant as a safe space for co-survivors and for men to discuss issues such as masculinity and mature relationships.

“Back in the early ’90s, conversations were few and far between where men were collectively talking about issues of sexual violence,” Brous said. “We wanted to consider: What does it mean to take responsibility as men in the community—to support our sisters, our girlfriends, our partners, so that they knew they’re not alone?”

A sign from a 1994 men's vigil sponsored by Students for a Just Sexual Assault Policy reads “Men can stop sexual violence.” (Spectator Archives)

During the Super Bowl, the club set up a scoreboard on College Walk. Instead of keeping score of the game, the scoreboard instead tracked a timer and included the statistic that a woman is sexually assaulted every 15 seconds in the United States.

The University Senate’s passage of the policy was contingent on a policy review two years later, but the review was postponed until 1999 so a University Senate task force could investigate the issue. The delay upset activists.

During these additional two years, the senate formed a special task force to review the policy, identify trouble spots, and provide suggestions for reform.

Student activists said that there was a lack of information and proper statistics surrounding sexual assault on campus, while the policy itself was not sensitive to survivors of sexual assault.

“Everyone really was going in with the assumption that it needed to be revised, but you have to start with figuring out what’s wrong with it,” said Sofia Berger, CC ’00, SEAS ’02, who was a University senator appointed to the task force. “None of the people on the committee were people that were currently running the policy or anything, so we had to learn: What’s the existing policy? What are the problems? What are the things that are not working or working? How many people used it?”

To get more information, Berger and her colleagues spent a year talking to anyone on campus who had something to say: administrators, campus activists, and survivors of sexual assault.

“My response was to listen,” Berger said. “I’m not going to make excuses for the past policy, because it wasn’t mine, and also, it’s such a passionate issue that I really wanted people to feel that they had the space to say anything they wanted.”

Photos of the 1995 Take Back the Night march at Columbia and Barnard, as published in the April 3 issue of Spectator. (Spectator Archives)

One of the groups Berger spoke to was the Policy Reform Organization—a group formed by volunteers at the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Center, which opened in 1992, who had seen the policy’s shortcomings firsthand through their work.

PRO grew out of what we saw as a need to really go beyond trying to serve survivors of sexual assault,” said Alshadye Yemane, CC ’99, who founded the group and served as its first coordinator. “There were other organizations that were very much focused on giving a voice to survivors and generally promoting awareness, but we had a very targeted goal of trying to do something about the policy.”

While these other groups—Take Back the Night among them—continued to organize their annual events, PRO worked behind the scenes to research what might make for a better sexual misconduct policy. It examined legal and health studies, federal laws, and policies at other universities, looking to see what might be incorporated into a new policy for Columbia.

Ultimately, PRO drafted a petition that put forth four main points: The group wanted to improve sexual assault policy, formalize the Dean’s Discipline process, collect and publicize information about sexual misconduct on campus, and create a coalition of students and faculty to continuously improve policy surrounding the issue.

“A lot of it boiled down to how adversarial the [adjudication] process was going to be,” Ben Casselman, CC ’03 and a former Spectator news editor who covered the senate debates during his first year on campus, said. “The activists wanted a non-adversarial process. They wanted a lot of support for the accuser. I think there was a push to allow students—accusers—to have what eventually became the policy: silent supporters to sit with them.”

“Going to Take Back the Night, you’d hear story after story about women trying to go through the school’s sexual assault disciplinary procedure and being treated badly,” Ashley Burczak, BC ’00 and a founder of PRO, said. “It’s very similar to what you see now—they would report, and they would be chastised for what they were wearing or told they should consider dropping out of school.”

Graphic by Kenza Ben Brahim

Rolling out the red tape

Despite PRO’s efforts in 1996, students felt that they were not putting enough pressure on either University administrators or the task force, which was making slow progress with the policy review.

Frustrated by this administrative gridlock, Burczak and other students met with Jennifer Kelly, BC ’93, a former coordinator for Take Back the Night. A leading figure in the movement to bring the Rape Crisis Center to campus in 1992, Kelly told them they needed to raise the stakes.

“Her experience with the Columbia administration was that they didn’t move anything forward until they were made to more forward,” Burczak said. “She said, ‘You’re going need to be a little bit more aggressive in your activism.’”

Student protesters gathered in September 2014 for the Stand with Survivors rally on Low Plaza, where red tape was again a major theme. (Kiera Wood / Senior Staff Photographer)

Burczak listened. Careful to ensure that more militant activist efforts on the part of PRO wouldn’t jeopardize the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Center’s funding, she spearheaded the creation of a separate group—Students Active for Ending Rape, or SAFER for short—to mobilize students in supporting policy reform in 2000.

As PRO kept conducting research and meeting with senators, SAFER took its activist efforts straight to students. Tabling on College Walk and Low Steps, writing op-eds in Spectator, and organizing a panel and speak-outs, the group rapidly emerged as the main player in spreading the word and gaining support.

“A lot of it was people speaking to each other, creating awareness by talking about what was going on or keeping people abreast at the beginning of classes,” Jeff Senter, CC ’01, and one of SAFER’s co-coordinators in 2001, said. “Students recognized the importance of sexual assault as an issue and the importance of an administration that took the issue seriously, that took the time and effort to work with students to craft policies and procedures and invest in prevention.”

To raise awareness of the cause and collect signatures for PRO’s petition, activists plastered the campus with flyers and red tape, employing the slogan, “Red tape won’t cover up rape.” Wearing the tape as armbands or tying it around their backpacks, students displayed the symbol as a sign of solidarity with survivors.

“It just seemed to really accurately represent how the policy was perceived by students,” Burczak said. “It [the policy] seemed designed to be more difficult to use than to be effective.”

And the symbol stuck.

“It was very successful branding on their part,” Casselman said. “You saw flyers with the red tape, you saw people had red tape on their backpacks. I remember sitting in a class and noticing somebody next to me with the red tape wrapped around in a loop on her backpack and, in my reporter mode, saying, ‘Are you involved in SAFER?’”

“I remember those first meetings to talk about the red tape and wondering, ‘Are people gonna do it—it’s this little thing’ to actually seeing it all over campus on all types of folks—on their book-bags, on their arms as armbands,” Darien Meyer, CC ’00 and a former CMAV coordinator, said.

SAFER took credit—and I think SAFER deserved credit—for being the group that rallied the student body,” Casselman said. “SAFER succeeded in creating a sense that the student body was united on this point, that they were paying close attention, and that they would become much more active if a version of SAFER’s policy was not passed.”

Donning red tape, students organize outside the Barnard gates in November 1999 in protest of the University Senate Task Force's recommendations for the Sexual Misconduct Policy. (Photo illustration by Steven Lau)

‘Fucked again’

So when the senate task force released a draft of its policy on Nov. 5, 1999—excluding many of the major reforms activists had pushed for—student groups erupted.

“It was mind-blowing. I just really, profoundly felt that the system had failed us,” Burczak told Spectator at the time. “It’s a regression to a worse policy.”

Students said the policy lacked specifics, left little room for student input on and monitoring of the adjudication panel, and failed to extend the 180-day statute of limitations that was in place.

As activists now rallied to block the policy from being passed at a fast-approaching University Senate meeting, they put up more signs around campus with red tape—this time reading, “Fucked again!”

“They had put this faith in this process, and they felt like they had been betrayed. They were furious about the policy,” Casselman said of the activists. “They felt completely wronged.”

Releasing a draft of a public policy was already an unusual occurrence, and in retrospect, Berger said she realizes why the draft struck a nerve.

“There were a bunch of elements that we had written in that we looked at it one way,” Berger said. “And the community saw these things from a totally different end. We thought we had done things that made the policy much more sensitive, but they did not get interpreted the same way by the wider community.”

Pieces of the adjudication process outlined in the senate draft policy—such as the elimination of an alternative adjudication procedure, in favor of a pre-existing process known as “Dean’s Discipline”—were upsetting to student activists, who began to take action.

Columbia Daily Spectator ran the above spread in its Nov. 3, 1999 issue. (Spectator Archive)

‘Red tape can’t cover up rape’

“Only a week after the University Senate’s Task Force on Sexual Misconduct released its recommendations for changes to the sexual misconduct policy, anti-violence student groups have mobilized for battle, and the campus has been wrapped in red tape,” a Spectator news article from Nov. 12, 1999 read.

Students, unhappy with the draft policy, focused their efforts on the November University Senate meeting, where the sexual misconduct policy would go up for a debate—and possibly a vote.

Take Back the Night organized the 23-hour-long vigil leading up to the meeting, after which a crowd of 400 protesters—including members from PRO, SAFER, CMAV, and Take Back the Night—marched down Broadway and through the 116th Street gates to enter the Law School, where the plenary was taking place. Ten students were ready to conduct a sit-in if the policy were to pass. Protesters chanted, “Red tape can’t cover up rape,” and “University silence perpetuates the violence,” while holding signs that said, “Up against the wall, Columbia.”

“It was really a remarkable moment,” Casselman, who attended the senate plenary as a Spectator reporter, said. “It was hundreds of people, it was everybody in red tape, everybody with signs, chanting. … It was loud. It was boisterous.”

“It was something that just meant so much more than we did during our daily life on campus. It was something that would have an impact. We felt really that there was a lot of weight on our shoulders, and that it was something that needed to happen.”

—PRO coordinator Jenn Glaser, CC ’00

“Every time there was any kind of campus activism, the talk was, ‘Is there going to be a building takeover? Is this the new ’68?’” he said, referring to the protests that rocked the campus in 1968. “It wasn’t ever the new ’68, but this was the closest we came.”

Inside the meeting, students sat silently with red tape covering their mouths, while leaders delivered 1,800 signed copies of the PRO petition to then-University President George Rupp’s podium.

“A lot of us were getting choked up and had tears in our eyes because we were so impressed about having all these people there,” PRO coordinator Jen Glaser said. ”We knew we had supporters, but seeing them out in the streets was a completely different experience—there was this sense of energy and electricity in the air.”

“It was something that just meant so much more than we did during our daily life on campus. It was something that would have an impact. We felt really that there was a lot of weight on our shoulders, and that it was something that needed to happen,” Glaser said. “It felt like we were representing all sorts of people who had experienced these wretched assaults on campus and giving voice to what they had been through.”

At the meeting, students said that administrators and senate members were receptive to their demands, as senators debated the policy’s due process clause, the statute of limitations for reporting sexual assault on campus, and the involvement of students in the disciplinary process.

“So there’s this big moment. Everybody’s sitting there, there’s red tape, and this meeting was very tension-filled—but also a little bit anticlimactic,” Casselman said. “Basically, all of the people on the task force got up and said, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right. We probably should have thought about that. Oh, yes, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this.’

While activists had expected opposition, the scene at the meeting was much more conciliatory —only a few senators raised objections and instead focused on possible improvements to the task force’s draft policy. According to a Spectator article about the meeting, Rupp called the student turnout “excellent” and pressured the senate to develop a final policy as soon as possible.

“So much campus activism is inherently students versus administrators, and the president is the führer-administrator and is the face of evil,” Casselman said. “Rupp did not play that part at all in this.”

Graphic by Kenza Ben Brahim

Flaring up

In the subsequent months, the task force met again with activists in order to review the draft policy, while activists worked to develop a counterproposal to present to the task force.

“They really attacked some elements in a pretty aggressive way,” Sofia Berger, the university senator on the task force, said of the student activists. “So we wanted to make sure that we were hearing their feedback and properly incorporating it.”

Amid civil disobedience training sessions and open forums—a version of today’s town halls—activists expressed their specific issues with the policy and brought more attention to their cause.

“Although we were kind of surprised by how unhappy they were with the initial draft, we spent a lot of time talking to all the different groups—I remember going to tons of meetings [with SAFER, CMAV, and Take Back the Night],” Berger said. “Some people would just call me directly and be like, ‘Look, I had this experience, and I’m really unhappy with this or that.’ We basically took all feedback.”

With sexual assault policies dominating conversation at other campuses across the country, activists and policymakers also benefited from national attention.

“This issue was flaring at a lot of other campuses as well, so there was a feedback effect with lots of other campuses, too,” Berger said. “It wasn’t just that Columbia is misstepping here—all these other schools were also going through the revision process.”

Students hold signs at the Title IX rally on Low Plaza in November 2013. (Kiera Wood / Senior Staff Photographer)

As the committee released subsequent drafts of the policies, activists responded with concerns, sending the task force back to the drawing board. In February 2000, after three rounds of revisions, they came to a consensus on a policy. All it would require was the University Senate’s approval at another meeting in February, after which it would be sent for a final vote to the Board of Trustees.

The day of the meeting, Spectator published a 3,400-word center-spread, “Coping in Silence They Are Friends, Classmates, and Victims,” which—much like a series published in the Blue and White last January—recounted a few female students’ experiences with sexual assault and examined the weaknesses in how Columbia treated their cases.

While the debate had been one-sided at the November meeting, objections to the proposed policy came at the February meeting from two faculty senators: senate veteran and Law School professor Gerard Lynch, and Jim Applegate, an astronomy instructor in his first term.

Lynch and Applegate raised concerns over due process, arguing that the task force’s proposed policy—through the use of qualifiers like “victim” and “perpetrator”—was biased against the accused.

“Galileo got a fairer trial in 1632 in the hands of the Vatican than a Columbia student would’ve gotten under this policy,” Applegate said in a recent interview.

But Applegate’s objections were raised too late. When the vote was called, the senate’s decision was almost unanimous.

“People literally burst into tears,” Berger recalled. “The people that had been working on it, when it passed—it was pretty incredible. They had been really passionately working on this issue. I mean, we all had, but they had been working on it for a long time, and it was clearly this big moment for them.”

Sarah Richardson, CC ’02 and a SAFER co-coordinator, told Spectator in its 2000 year-in-review issue that Columbia’s sexual assault policy was “the best in the nation”—a term law professor Suzanne Goldberg, who was appointed special advisor on sexual assault and prevention to University President Lee Bollinger in June 2014, has used to refer to Columbia’s policy today.

For Casselman, though, the activists’ victory—however sweet—was tinged by Applegate’s objections.

“On paper, it was absolutely this victory for the student groups,” he said. “But oddly, they had been put on the defensive at this meeting, and I don’t think it felt like quite the victory to them that they had expected.”

While the controversy up until then had focused on how closely policy matched activists’ demands, the terms of the debate were shifting to focus on due process concerns.

Spectator published a 3,400-word spread on Feb. 24, 2000 recounting the experiences of a few female students with sexual assault and examining the issues of how Columbia treated their cases.

‘Won the battle but lost the war’

The senate adopted the new policy on Feb. 25, 2000. It included measures to reaffirm the rights of rape victims in court but did not allow accused students to cross-examine witnesses, bring a lawyer to trial, or face their accuser.

But, as the next few years would show, and as Casselman put it, the activists had “won the battle but lost the war.”

In October of 2000, fire struck—quite literally.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit formed in response to free speech protests at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, launched a media campaign that saw both the Wall Street Journal and columnists at the Village Voice editorializing against what they called “Columbia’s violation of due process rights.”

“All of a sudden, it was in the news again, and all of the activist infrastructure had dissipated,” Casselman said. “The whole movement had lost its momentum, and all of a sudden, you had this big push from outsiders to reign in policy.”

Activists soon discovered that the real challenge would be implementing the policy.

“The process takes place, they fight their way through, they generate all this activity around it, they get their policy passed,” he said. “But it turns out that policy is in many ways the least important part of all of this—it’s the implementation of the policy that matters.”

One of the key steps in implementation was the formation of the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Education, which was tasked with overseeing the adjudication process and communicating with students about statistics and channels for reporting assault.

Jeff Senter, one of the SAFER co-coordinators, worked during his senior year to help find an applicant suitable to lead the office, sitting on a committee composed mostly of administrators that read through résumé after résumé. Eventually, the group settled on Charlene Allen, a former lawyer coming from a position as executive director of a rape crisis center in Boston.

Just before finishing her sixth month in office, she resigned. And in October of 2003, after two brief stints with interim directors, so did her successor, Misumbo Byrd.

“The feudal nature of Columbia’s different colleges—each defending their fief—makes some University-wide positions challenging,” Senter said. “I think it may have been more challenging for that person than anyone anticipated.”

In a Spectator article on her resignation in 2001, Allen cited conflicts with trustees and the University administration as her reasons for leaving.

“Ongoing University support by and from the administration is necessary for any sort of new initiative to be successful,” Senter said in an interview last month. “There are different levels and different degrees of buy-in, and you need the deans of the colleges each to be actively working to make sure that the new office grows and is successful.”

Figures like Burczak and Yemane had graduated, campus activists were busy fighting for new causes, and the red tape that activists once wore on backpacks and armbands disappeared.

“The whole movement had lost its momentum, and all of a sudden, you had this big push from outsiders to reign in policy.”

—Ben Casselman, CC ’03 and a former Spectator news editor

‘We work for the day we are no longer needed’

Without a strong student activist movement and after backlash from the media for its announcement in the following year, the annual sexual misconduct policy review was again delayed from 2002 to 2004.

As the policy underwent a review for the second time, the University began bulking up its resources. The Sexual Violence Response Program was created in 2004 from the amalgamation of the faltering Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Education and the Rape Crisis Center.

At Columbia College Class Day in May 2014, some students wore red tape on their caps to show support for the growing anti-sexual assault movement on campus. (Kiera Wood / Senior Staff Photographer)

According to Dr. Karen Singleton, the current director of Columbia University Medical Center’s Mental Health Service and director of the Sexual Violence Response Program at the time of its creation, the program grew rapidly from that point forward.

“Our first prevention team included key stakeholders from across campus—Greek life, Athletics, Health Promotion, Multicultural Affairs and Residential Life,” Singleton said in an email. “As a result of our team’s efforts, we were considered leaders among our Ivy peers and were invited to speak about SVR internationally (throughout both India and Canada) as well as host visitors from prevention teams from China and Sweden.” Since then, the Sexual Violence Response Program has continued to work toward the original Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Center’s mission written in 1991—“We work for the day we are no longer needed.”

In 2011, Sexual Violence Response developed Talk20 and Peer Talk as programs to train faculty, administrators, and students to successfully respond to students who disclose cases of sexual assault. These training sessions were held by volunteers at the Rape Crisis Center, which had been newly revitalized by La’Shawn Rivera after she became the center’s director in 2009.

While the review was initially due to take place in 2002, the new sexual assault response policy was delayed until 2004, and the senate then took another two years to finalize it.

The revised policy established the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault—which would consist of students, faculty members, and administrators—to meet the demands of the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct and more collaboratively work on future policy development and implementation. The review also updated the policy to include a more specific definition of consent to set firmer boundaries defining acceptable and unacceptable student behavior.

During the 2006 review, campus activism was low, according to a 2006 Spectator article. A student group called Reforming Sexual Assault Policy advocated for the the policy’s passage, but it had only a handful of members.

Graphic by Kenza Ben Brahim

A new wave

On April 4, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education released a “Dear Colleague” letter, which reminded universities of federal Title IX policies, prompting many schools across the country to revisit their sexual assault policies.

Columbia responded with a 17-page document that outlined changes to its policies, including the addition of a Title IX investigator, the introduction of third-party complaints, and allowing all violations to warrant an investigation and go before a hearing panel.

And then, in October 2013, the Columbia University College Democrats released a petition that got almost 1,500 signatures demanding the release of aggregate, anonymous data about how Columbia adjudicates sexual assault, as well as other reforms to the adjudication process.

At the Class Day and Commencement ceremonies in May, students wore red tape on their graduation caps as a sign of solidarity with Columbia's sexual assault activists. (Kiera Wood)

“We had obviously seen that many other universities were failing to appropriately address sexual assault, people who were found guilty were being let off with a suspension, with community service—their only punishment would be that they had to write an essay—which we didn’t think was at all acceptable to protect people’s safety,” Sejal Singh, then president of CU Dems, explained.

Anna Bahr, BC ’14, wrote a two-part series for the Blue and White, published in January 2014, which detailed a number of survivors’ experiences with the adjudication process.

“She [Bahr], in amazing detail, documented many of the ways in which Columbia had failed to support survivors, in horrifying ways,” Singh said. “And as soon as that happened, a lot of students so desperately wanted to find ways to combat this issue on campus.”

Members of the CU Dems got together with members of student government and anti-sexual assault groups, including the Title IX Team, and decided to create the Coalition Against Sexual Violence.

“It was intended to only be this umbrella group that brings together all the different groups that were working on this, to pool efforts, to make sure that we had a unified front when we talk to administrators, to really make sure that we have a space to direct the advocacy in the most effective way and to coordinate, and it’s been really effective,” Singh said.

The coalition began workshops to draft proposals, which were divided into four key areas: consent education and primary prevention, resources and crisis support for survivors, adjudication, and transparency.

“I think the coalition, having set out those clear policy proposals, was a key part of channeling the frustration that people were feeling and the outrage people had about how badly Columbia had failed to protect students, how badly Columbia had failed to support survivors,” Singh said. “We had a fully articulable set of goals we had been pushing for … And I think that being able to divide and conquer specific goals has been vital to our progress thus far.”

And administrators did start to take action—Columbia created a new website to make information about sexual assault policy more accessible, Bollinger promised the release of aggregate, anonymous data, and administrators hosted two town halls on the subject, which drew large attendance from students.

But for some students, the administrative action wasn’t enough. Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, CC ’15, founded No Red Tape Columbia to complement the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, which she felt was not forceful enough to effect change on its own.

“We needed a group that isn’t about playing nice but can challenge the University and is willing to put the two things they care about on the line, which is money and reputation.”

—Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, CC ’15

“We needed a group that isn’t about playing nice but can challenge the University and is willing to put the two things they care about on the line, which is money and reputation. If they’re not going to care about our safety, we are going to figure out what they care about, and we figured it out, and it’s money and reputation,” Ridolfi-Starr said.

No Red Tape’s organizing resembled SAFER’s activism in 1999 and 2000—the group began by plastering red tape and signs around campus. But then, No Red Tape began to play a bigger role. Many of its members were in the 23-student coalition that filed a federal complaint in March of this year alleging that Columbia violated the Clery Act, Title IX, and Title II.

No Red Tape coordinated two major rallies this semester, both on Low Plaza, centering on the motif of red tape and mattresses.

The Stand with Survivors rally on Sept. 12 drew over 100 students holding mattresses and cardboard signs emblazoned with phrases like “rape happens here” and “welcome back rapists.”

No Red Tape, along with a group called Carrying the Weight Together, organized a Carry That Weight rally and national day of action on Oct. 30, which again centered on Sulkowicz’s project. Over 150 students attended the protest, carrying mattresses and signs to rally against Columbia’s sexual assault policies. After the rally, a group of students marched to Bollinger’s house on 116th Street and Morningside Drive, chanting “PrezBo, PrezBo, you can’t hide, be the leader on our side,” and, “Rape culture is contagious, come on PrezBo be courageous.”

“It’s incredible what a small group of dedicated students has been able to do,” Ridolfi-Starr said. “We’ve come a really long way, but we have miles to go as a university and society, even in a progressive place and school like this, and even still now after all the activism we’ve seen.”

“It’s incredible what a small group of dedicated students has been able to do,” Ridolfi-Starr said. “We’ve come a really long way, but we have miles to go as a university and society, even in a progressive place and school like this, and even still now after all the activism we’ve seen.”

‘We haven’t yet solved the problem’

Ridolfi-Starr said that while the current movement has been informed by the past, today’s activists are working to institutionalize their activism.

“Throughout the history of activism on campus, movements have been so sporadic. We are hoping that we can keep this a more steady conversation with progress towards change, rather than having these brief bursts and brief intervals—because while that can be powerful, it’s not sustainable,” Ridolfi-Starr said. “Particularly in college activism, you lose the knowledge built up in the prior generation, and so you end up with these flurries of changes that don’t have a long-term view.”

“Each group of activists had this fantasy that what they were doing would address the issue in a more lasting way—but we haven’t yet solved the problem.”

—PRO coordinator Jen Glaser, CC ’00

When Sofia Berger saw coverage of Sulkowicz’s Carry That Weight project, she emailed two of her former colleagues on the University Senate task force.

“I was like, ‘Amazing how history repeats itself,” Berger said. “Doesn’t it sound very familiar? It’s different, obviously—it’s got its own flavor to it this time. But it’s a major student uprising over the same issue that seems not to have been resolved any better by my turn of events than it has now.”

For alumni who were at the center of the activist campaigns in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the re-emergence of red tape on campus only shows that, despite the progress made in the past 30 years, this wave of activists still has more to do.

Berger and other alumni expressed disappointment that students are experiencing similar problems to when they were in college. Even if they knew their policies and activism wouldn’t end all sexual violence, many said they wished society had evolved more since they were on campus.

“It’s very disappointing, because there is a sense that we wanted to feel like some progress had been made,” Glaser said. “Each group of activists had this fantasy that what they were doing would address the issue in a more lasting way—but we haven’t yet solved the problem.”

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