Updated, Feb. 24, 10:04 p.m.
An undergraduate student was found responsible for sexually assaulting Camila Quarta, CC ’16, in April 2013. Since then, 481 undergraduate students have taken courses in which he has served as a teaching assistant.
The extent to which students like this, who have been found responsible for gender-based misconduct but are not expelled, can reintegrate into campus life isn’t immediately clear. But Spectator has learned that Columbia has no blanket policy that prevents these students from taking leadership roles on campus.
Any student who is currently in good disciplinary standing—regardless of past disciplinary record, including violations of the University’s gender-based misconduct policy—can serve as a resident adviser, teaching assistant, an orientation or pre-orientation leader, and in other similar leadership positions, according to a University official.
Students who are not in good disciplinary standing with the University have either been expelled or are currently serving a period of suspension or disciplinary probation, according to the Office of Judicial Affairs’ Standards & Discipline handbook. Otherwise, students are considered in good disciplinary standing and are allowed to serve in leadership roles on campus.
But students and faculty interviewed by Spectator this week expressed discomfort with the notion that individuals found responsible for gender-based misconduct are allowed back on campus with few limitations, especially given the rarity of expulsion in these cases.
None of the students found responsible for gender-based misconduct between July 2013 and June 2014 were expelled from the University, Title IX Coordinator Melissa Rooker told Spectator in September following the release of aggregate data on sexual assault. Instead, they were either allowed to remain on campus or have returned to campus after serving a suspension.
In 2011, University President Lee Bollinger told Spectator he didn’t know if anyone had ever been expelled from Columbia for sexual assault, but that he would find it troubling if no students had been expelled.
The University declined to provide the number of students found responsible for gender-based misconduct who are currently on campus and in good disciplinary standing. Research varies about recidivism rates for sexual assault offenders, but many researchers believe that sexual assault on college campuses is often committed by repeat offenders.
Students who return to campus following suspension for gender-based misconduct undergo a reintegration process facilitated by case managers at the Office of Gender-Based Misconduct, which can include a review of policies and expectations, as well as discussion of disciplinary probation status and other restrictions, including no-contact orders and prohibition from certain campus activities, such as particular clubs and organizations, according to a University statement.
However, in prohibiting a student found responsible for gender-based misconduct from participating in certain activities, the case managers’ primary focus is on ensuring that the respondent and complainant do not come into contact, as mandated by Title IX. Whether or not students other than the complainant would feel comfortable interacting with the respondent—including as a teaching assistant or resident adviser, for example—is not something the office currently takes into consideration.
Students interviewed by Spectator were particularly concerned about the lack of a blanket policy preventing students found responsible for gender-based misconduct from serving as resident advisers given that students must live in close proximity to their RAs, with whom they are required to attend one on one meetings, which are often held in the RA’s room.
“I think that’s a case where you have so much responsibility and access to people’s personal stories and information. I think having been convicted of gender-based misconduct in this area, as an RA, it’s really questionable,” Luke Foster, CC ’15 and a Spectator columnist, said.
“I can see where people would be really uncomfortable with that,” Annie Shi, CC’15, said. “Especially since students don’t get to choose who their RAs are.”
A spokesperson for the Office of Residential Life for Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science confirmed in a statement that no blanket policy exists preventing students found responsible for gender-based misconduct from serving as a resident adviser.
“An applicant’s disciplinary standing or any policy violations could impact their selection as a resident adviser. Importantly, each application is considered on a case-by-case basis,” the spokesperson said.
A student’s previous disciplinary record was not referenced by any University spokesperson or administrator as a factor in the application process.
George Vallas, an attorney at the Ottinger Firm, which specializes in employment law, said a university is obligated to protect the student body when they have actual knowledge of the presence of students on campus who have previously committed an act of sexual misconduct.
“Resident advisers are in positions of trust with students, they have open door policies, they’re expected to interact with undergraduates on a pretty intimate basis—the danger there would be much more direct,” Vallas said. “I don’t think the law would require a blanket policy, but it’d probably be safer for the University in terms of liability for avoiding expensive lawsuits and protecting their students.”
The undergraduate student found responsible for sexually assaulting Quarta has been employed as a teaching assistant since the fall 2014 semester. Quarta spoke publicly about her assault in September to New York Magazine.
“In my particular case I had a written admission of guilt, which was brought up for evidence and the respondent said it was true,” said Quarta, who is one of the 28 complainants who filed a federal complaint against Columbia alleging violations of Title IX, Title II, and the Clery Act.
The student was found responsible in spring 2013, and suspended for the fall 2013 semester. When he returned to campus in spring 2014, he remained on disciplinary probation for one semester.
He was able to apply to become a teaching assistant for the fall 2014 semester, as he was no longer on disciplinary probation after his first semester back at school. In fall 2014, he was first hired as a teaching assistant.
A teaching assistant employed by the same department that employs Quarta’s assailant confirmed to Spectator that the department’s application does not ask potential teaching assistants about their past disciplinary record.
The student declined to respond to Spectator’s request for comment for this piece when reached by phone and email this week.
“Students should know if their TA has a history of assault,” Quarta said. “Maybe he’ll never touch anyone again, for all I know. But I feel like the students should have knowledge of that. In his group of students there are probably survivors, just statistically speaking, and it would be fucked up if a respondent was their TA.”
Charles Sanky, CC ’16, said that while the lack of a clear cut policy leaves room for potential problems, it also allows for students to improve.
“The University can provide opportunities for them to grow, opportunities for them to learn, opportunities for them to figure out what it means to be a civically minded person here who’s going to respect other people,” said Sanky.
Patrick Aloia, CC ’15, said he feels strongly that students found responsible for gender-based misconduct should not be eligible to apply for leadership positions on campus.
“I don’t think it depends on the severity. Breaking trust in that way is pretty reprehensible across the board,” Aloia said. “I don’t even know if I think they should come back.”
“You want to have leaders who are held to a higher standard so that you can really make students feel welcome.”
——Jack Chen,CC ’17
Professors interviewed by Spectator this week had mixed opinions on the issue. Some felt that students found responsible for sexual assault should be given a second chance, but others expressed concerns about these students serving as teaching assistants.
Van C. Tran, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia College, said that if he found out one of his teaching assistants was found responsible for gender based misconduct, he would “feel slightly uneasy,” but said that the University should respect students’ privacy.
“Once guilty, you should be allowed a chance and certainly this should apply to undergraduate students,” Tran said.
Gil Eyal, a professor and chair of the sociology department, agreed.
“In general principle, I believe that if somebody was found guilty of something and have served whatever punishment was decided for them, then they should have the same chances as everybody else,” Eyal said.
But Karen Santos Da Silva, a lecturer in the French department at Barnard, said that the University should typically tell professors if their TAs have been found guilty of gender-based misconduct.
“I would imagine that I could find examples where I think it [notifying professors] shouldn’t be the case, but particularly if someone is in a TA position and they’re going to be dealing with undergraduates of either the opposite sex or the same sex, whatever the offense would have been, supposing that something happens during that semester, it’s much better to have a history of that person’s behavior,” Santos Da Silva said.
The issue may also arise in considering whether students found responsible for gender-based misconduct can serve in other student leadership positions, such as leaders for New Student Orientation Program and the University’s three pre-orientation programs: International Student Orientation Program, Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program, and Columbia Urban Experience.
Jack Chen, CC ’17 and the 2014 ISOP coordinator, said that he believes students found responsible for committing sexual misconduct should not be allowed to take leadership positions because new students need to feel comfortable approaching them.
“You want to have leaders who are held to a higher standard so that you can really make students feel welcome,” Chen said. “It’s pretty self explanatory that ISOP leaders and other leaders should not have been found guilty of sexual assault.”
Administrators, however, have said in the past that the University’s adjudication process should differ from criminal proceedings.
The University’s priority is that the gender-based misconduct adjudication process is educational for all parties, that it fully integrates students found responsible for gender-based misconduct back into university life, and that each individual situation is handled on a case-by-case basis.
However, as Columbia has focused on fully supporting the educational and social well-being of students found responsible for sexual misconduct, supporting the faculty and students who feel uncomfortable interacting with those found responsible remains unexplored.
Aaron Fisher and J. Clara Chan contributed reporting.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story stated that Foster was the current rather than the former president of the Veritas Forum. An earlier version of the story stated that Jack Chen was CC ’14 rather than CC ’17. An earlier version also misstated the semester the student found responsible for assaulting Quarta was suspended for. Spectator regrets the errors.