"We Will Not Be Silenced": Students Denounce Rape at Columbia as Schools Face Scrutiny for Inaction

September 16, 2014


Zoe Ridolfi-Starr

organizer for the ED Act Now campaign with Know Your IX. She is also a senior at Columbia University.

Emma Sulkowicz

senior at Columbia University, where she says she was raped by a fellow student in August 2012. For her senior thesis project, she launched an endurance performance art piece in which she is carrying around a twin-size dorm room mattress for as long as her rapist remains on campus. She was part of a federal complaint last year challenging Columbia’s handling of rape cases.

Hundreds of students turned out for a rally at Columbia University in New York City on Friday bearing mattresses and chanting "carry that weight," a reference to the emotional burden they say all survivors must shoulder each day. Some wore red tape over their mouths to symbolize the harms done by Columbia’s bureaucratic handling of sexual assault. Earlier this month, Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz announced she would carry a dorm room mattress with her everywhere on campus until her rapist is expelled or leaves campus on his own. We play excerpts from Friday’s rally and speak to Sulkowicz and fellow Columbia University senior Zoe Ridolfi-Starr. She was also sexually assaulted at Columbia in 2012. She is the lead complainant in a federal complaint against Columbia over its handling of sexual assault.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University senior who says she’ll carry a dorm room mattress with her everywhere on campus until her rapist is expelled or leaves campus on his own. Emma Sulkowicz is not alone. On Friday, hundreds of students turned out to a rally carrying mattresses of their own, chanting "Carry that weight!" a reference to the emotional burden they say all survivors must carry each day. In front of Low Library at Columbia University in a speak-out that lasted hours, many shared stories of violence, injustice and healing. This is just some of their voices.

STUDENTS: Carry that weight! Carry that weight! Carry that weight! Carry that weight!

SIERRA: Sierra. I’m a freshman here at Columbia. And for the past two weeks, I’ve been meeting with deans and advisers in different environments, and they’ve been telling me how they can help me get a job, how they can help me study abroad. How are you going to help end sexual assault on my campus? Why is it more likely for me to be raped at this college than it was for me to get into this college?

ALICE: My name is Alice. I’m a junior at Barnard. To graduate from Columbia College, you need to pass a swim test or take a beginner’s swim class. I don’t get why Columbia’s administration doesn’t uphold consent—enthusiastic, continuous, retractable, noncoerced consent—as a Columbia requirement. My assaulter graduated. My friend’s rapist graduated. I guess not being a rapist isn’t a graduation requirement, unlike knowing how to swim. Knowing how to breast stroke for three laps isn’t going to keep me from drowning when I see my rapists on campus or their name on a class roster or when you run into them in an elevator. Columbia, where rapists walk away with diplomas, but you can’t graduate unless you pass the swim test.

DOROTHY: Hi, I’m Dorothy. I’m a freshman. I’ve been on this campus for two weeks, and I was sexually assaulted six days ago. And no one tells you where to go from there, so...

JEN: Jen. My first year here on campus at Barnard College, I was raped. Unlike the vast majority of students who are raped on this campus, I was not raped in a dorm or in a party or on campus, but off campus. I quickly went into something of a spiral, where I couldn’t sleep at night and I could only sleep during the day. And I started having trouble in my classes, and I started having my grades slip. And it became an issue, and I went to speak to the dean of students at Barnard, a woman, a women’s college, and I told her what had happened to me. And she looked at me with a sad expression and said, "You went where we tell our girls never to go." The idea that she would both victim-blame me and invoke the most racist stereotypes of how sexual assault happens, at the same time, says everything about what this university represents. This was 22 years ago. And what has changed?

AGNES: Agnes. I am a sophomore at Barnard. During my second month at here, Columbia, I was sexually resulted by a senior, who lived in EC, and I just wanted to go home. I just wanted to be in my own [bleep] bed. And they wouldn’t let me go. And I think a lack of what people are doing—I think everyone here is amazing. And I just want to say I think it’s beautiful that you’re all here. And I think the administration has [bleep] up. And I think—I think we can do it. I think all of you right here, just your showing your support coming out here today, can do something. We will not be silenced!

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the people at a rally and speak-out on Columbia’s campus on Friday. The protests have put Columbia at the center of a national debate over sexual assault on college campuses, where studies show one in five women are sexually assaulted during their college years. In April, a White House task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden released a report urging colleges to take action by conducting surveys, promoting bystander intervention and improving their disciplinary systems. Over the summer, lawmakers in both the House and Senate introduced bills to address rape on college campuses.

To talk more about Columbia and the national picture, Emma Sulkowicz remains with us, and we’re joined by her fellow Columbia University student, senior Zoe Ridolfi-Starr. She was also sexually assaulted at Columbia in 2012. She’s the lead complainant in a federal complaint against Columbia over its handling of sexual assault.

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, also Emma, thanks so much for being with us. Zoe, talk about what happened to you.

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: When I was working on campus over the summer, I stayed. I had a great job in the Political Science Department. I was very excited about it. And one night, I was out at a local bar and then at a party, and I ended up being sexually assaulted in a Columbia University fraternity house.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened then? You were assaulted there, and—

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: And I was confused and scared, and I felt disgusting. The first person I told reacted very badly, so I really didn’t speak about it again for almost a year and a half. And Emma was actually one of the first people that I told.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ultimately file a charge with the university?

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: No, because by the time I felt strong enough and sure enough of myself and what had happened, and by the time I stopped victim-blaming myself for drinking, for flirting, for going out at night, I had met Emma and spoken with her and other survivors who had gone through the process, and, you know, had a pretty clear picture of how they would treat me and what the outcome of a case would be. So, I had absolutely no faith in the system and decided not to report.

AMY GOODMAN: You emceed the rally on Friday at Columbia, hugging many of the women who were weeping. Columbia University did send us a statement, saying, quote, "In recent months, Columbia has announced a new Gender-Based Misconduct Policy for Students, opened an additional Sexual Violence Response and Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center, expanded mandatory training for incoming undergraduates on consent and the importance of bystander intervention, and launched a new 'Step Up' campaign to help prevent gender-based misconduct from occurring in the first place." Can you talk about these steps and whether you think Columbia is responding in an adequate way?

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: I think they’re responding to this issue as a PR crisis rather than engaging directly with Emma or myself or so many of the other survivors and students who have been working tirelessly to bring this issue to light and to share our personal, painful, private stories just to, you know, force them to take us seriously. The new gender-based misconduct policy they announced is completely an effort to stay in compliance with the Campus SaVE Act, which all universities were required to change their policies in order to comply with. They completely ignored the large majority of student concerns raised and deliberately excluded us from the development of that policy, despite the fact that many of us stayed in the summer, stayed in the city over the summer so that we could be a part of that process. We were deliberately excluded. You know, the prevention programs are still totally inadequate. They focus on first years. They’re not critical. They’re not comprehensive. They just—they’re inadequate. And they continue to ignore student feedback, shut us out of the decision-making spaces, and treat this really as a concern about their public image rather than our safety.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Sulkowicz?

EMMA SULKOWICZ: I mean, in the end of the day, my rapist is still here. So, no matter what policy they’ve put forward, I still see him on campus, and I still have to fear that I can’t take a class that I want to take because he wants to take it first. And I feel like, what good are these policies when my serial rapist is still on this campus potentially attacking more students?

AMY GOODMAN: Columbia University is under federal investigation, along with scores of other universities around the United States. And, Zoe, you’re very active on this national level. You’re an organizer with the ED Act Now campaign, as well as Know Your IX. Explain what these are. And what does it mean for your campus, to your university, to be under investigation?

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: So, Know Your IX is a survivor-led, student-driven campaign that works to empower students to end sexual violence on college campuses, and ED Act Now is sort of the organizing branch of that group. So we’re pushing for improved policies at both campus, state and federal levels around these issues of sexual violence on campuses.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain IX, what IX is.

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: Mm-hmm, sure. So, IX refers to Title IX, which is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which require universities to take action to prevent and respond effectively to gender discrimination. And that’s been interpreted to include sexual violence. So, it basically says universities are required to create safe environments for all students to pursue their education free from gender-based discrimination, including sexual violence.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what does it mean for your university to be under investigation?

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: It means that they have failed to protect students. They have failed to prevent gender discrimination. They’ve created an extremely hostile environment, where students, like Emma and myself, who worked our entire lives to achieve enough to get us into Columbia in the first place, and in my case, you know, to get the scholarships I would need to attend and to be admitted to the university, then come and, within, most of the time, our first year or so, are assaulted and then have to struggle through the remaining years of our education, navigating that with that weight on our shoulders, with that burden constantly present in our minds, while the university has completely failed to take the action that they’re legally required to take to prevent that from happening and to respond effectively when it does.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another story from Friday’s speak-out at Columbia. A woman named Jen read this story, which was submitted anonymously.

JEN: "This May, my boyfriend severely beat me in my dorm room. He punched me, choked me against my wall, threw me on the ground and pinned my neck to the floor with his foot. He threatened to kill me. A month before that, in a similar incident, he threw me down and threatened to rape me. That night in May, he hurt me so badly that I couldn’t move my neck or shoulders for days. Someone on my floor heard me screaming and reported it to my RA.

“Once Columbia had enough information, they issued a mutual no-contact order to both me and him. We broke it. I was completely alone and isolated and felt like I still needed him. I still loved him and just wanted the assault to go away. The penalty for breaking a no-contact order, whether complainant or respondent, is the same and can include suspension. The man who threatened to rape and kill me is protected under this policy, because he knows that I can’t give Columbia the information that they need to expel him without him turning me in for breaking the no-contact order. He will take me down with him if I pursue the case.

"It is completely unfair that Columbia holds abusers and their victims to the same punitive measures, when basic knowledge of cycles of abuse shows that victims often feel trapped and isolated, and therefore stay with the people who attack them."

AMY GOODMAN: One of the people who spoke out on Friday. Zoe, your response? And can you talk specifically about these no-contact orders?

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: So, in this case, the no-contact order, and in a many cases at Columbia, is just one example of the kinds of policies that place a really undue burden on the shoulders of the survivor, who is trying to, you know, just move forward with their lives, whether or not they choose to report. They’re trying to heal. They’re trying to move on. They’re trying to find peace and find ways to be happy again. In this case, you know, it prevents her from even reporting and from seeking help. This is a person who submitted an anonymous story, who actually stayed afterwards at the rally to speak to me and was desperate for help. So we’ve started working with her to try to explain what that process is like, how other students have tried to navigate this concern about the no-contact directive before, particularly in domestic violence cases. You know, there’s a very clear and well-documented cycle of abuse, where abusers manipulate victims and survivors, and people do end up speaking to their perpetrators again. That’s well known for anyone who’s been trained, even as I was just as an intern at a domestic violence agency a year ago, to understand; however, Columbia somehow can’t understand that, and their policies reflect their clear lack of sensitivity and training on these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: In April, a White House task force headed by Vice President Biden released a report urging colleges to take action against sexual assault. Citing studies that show one in five women are sexually assaulted in college, the government launched a new informational website,, and a public service announcement that features President Obama and Vice President Biden alongside famous actors.

BENICIO DEL TORO: We have a big problem, and we need your help.

DULÉ HILL: It’s happening on college campuses, at bars, at parties, even in high schools.

STEVE CARELL: It’s happening to our sisters and our daughters.

DANIEL CRAIG: Our wives and our friends.

SETH MEYERS: It’s called sexual assault, and it has to stop.

DULÉ HILL: We have to stop it. So listen up.

BENICIO DEL TORO: If she doesn’t consent or if she can’t consent, it’s rape, it’s assault.

STEVE CARELL: It’s a crime. It’s wrong.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If I saw it happening, I was taught you have to do something about it.

BENICIO DEL TORO: If I saw it happening, I speak up.

DANIEL CRAIG: If I saw it happening, I’d never blame her. I’d help her.

DULÉ HILL: Because I don’t want to be a part of the problem.

SETH MEYERS: I want to be a part of the solution.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We need all of you to be a part of the solution. This is about respect. It’s about responsibility.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s up to all of us to put an end to sexual assault. And that starts with you.

DANIEL CRAIG: Because one is too many.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Daniel Craig, Seth Meyers, Benicio Del Toro, Steve Carell, Dulé Hill, President Obama, Vice President Biden. The PSA will air in movie theaters, on military installations and ships. Meanwhile, Senators Claire McCaskill, as—well, we’ll address that issue later, what is happening at the Senate level. But your response to that PSA, Zoe?

ZOE RIDOLFI-STARR: It’s extremely encouraging to see leaders, particularly male allies in this struggle, speaking out. But it does focus very specifically on a narrow story of what sexual violence looks like: a man assaulting a woman. And for so many survivors on campus, that is not what their experience looks like. You think about male survivors or students who are LGBTQ, who, because of the stigma attached to, you know, one of those identities and what it means to survive sexual violence in one of those roles, are potentially even more vulnerable and pushed further away from services or more discouraged from speaking out. So, it’s unfortunate that their voices and their experiences were not reflected in that campaign or most of the other White House materials that are coming out on this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Emma, you’ll go back to campus today, you’ll pick up that mattress, and you’ll continue to carry the weight, unless people also help you carry it. Can you ask people to help you?

EMMA SULKOWICZ: I cannot. One of the rules of the piece is that I cannot ask for help, but if help is offered to me, I can accept it.

AMY GOODMAN: And how has this affected you? You’ve gotten a tremendous amount of media attention now around this issue. Did you expect that people would respond in the way that they have?

EMMA SULKOWICZ: No, it’s been—I mean, I knew that some news stations had expressed interest to me and wanted to be there on the first day, but never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined that it would become this big and become an international news item. And the surge of reporters has been wild. But I’m also just so inspired that so many other people across the country and across the world care about this issue. And, I mean, I guess, they haven’t really had an outlet to speak about it before, but it’s really moving to see that people are building off of the work I’ve started and taken it to entirely new levels. And it’s just been a really emotional and moving experience for me.

AMY GOODMAN: And you will continue to drag this mattress around campus until?

EMMA SULKOWICZ: Yeah, until—I will carry the mattress with me to all of my classes, every campus building, for as long as my rapist stays on the same campus with me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University, brought a charge against a fellow student. She says he raped her. Emma reported her assault to Columbia in April of 2013, but the university ultimately found the alleged rapist, quote, "not responsible." Two other women said the man did the same thing or engaged in an assault on them. Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, organizer for the ED Act Now campaign and Know Your IX, also was assaulted on campus. She is a senior at Columbia University. Of course, we’ll continue to follow these stories both at Columbia and all over the United States, not to mention outside of our borders.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Cleveland to speak with the wife of a former NFL player. She’s going to tell her story, what happened to her, and what role the NFL played. Stay with us.

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