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Why college rape victims don’t go to the police

Tired of being asked why she hadn’t, Emma Sulkowicz reported her alleged rape to the police; this is what happened

At the end of finals, most college kids go party. When Emma Sulkowicz finished her last exam of the school year on Tuesday, she went back to her dorm room and dialed 911.

It had been almost two years since Sulkowicz, now a rising senior at Columbia University, says she was raped by a classmate. And it had been seven months since she revisited the experience at a school disciplinary hearing, a process that she said left her feeling physically sick, then empty and then scared.

In the hearing, Sulkowicz said she had to explain to the three administrators on the panel how anal rape worked. She told them she had been hit across the face, choked and pinned down, but, she said, one still seemed confused about how it was possible for someone to penetrate her there without lubricant. Sulkowicz said she had to draw them a diagram.

“To have random administrators being the ones who have to stomach the gory details of rape — they weren’t prepared for this role,” said Sulkowicz.

Her best friend was meant to be at the hearing; Sulkowicz had chosen her as her one “supporter.” But her friend was kicked out of that role for talking about the case, according to Sulkowicz, in violation of the university’s confidentiality policy. As punishment, her friend was also put on probation and made to write two reflection papers: one from the perspective of Sulkowicz and another from the accused.

“It was a really sick thing for them to do,” Sulkowicz said, “to make my best friend write an essay from the perspective of the man who raped me.”

In the end, the man Sulkowicz had accused was found not responsible. America Tonight confirmed that at least one other student at the university filed a report with the school charging that the same man had raped her, too. Columbia University said it does not discuss individual cases.

“I see him around campus, and it’s really scary, because I know what he’s capable of,” Sulkowicz said. “… I know he’s going to continue to rape other women on campus.”

Gates to Columbia’s campus
Cheryl Zibisky/Getty Images

Sulkowicz went public with her story at an April event on Columbia’s campus with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and she’s become part of a growing wave of student activists campaigning against what they say are the failures of their colleges to handle sexual assault.

Many of those who learned about her story asked her the same question — to her face and on Facebook: Why didn’t you just go to the police?

According to a 2000 study by the Department of Justice, fewer than 5 percent of college women who suffered completed or attempted rapes reported it to law enforcement. Almost a quarter of rape victims who did not report said they were afraid of being treated with hostility. Twenty-seven percent said they thought the police wouldn’t think it was serious enough.

By Tuesday night, Sulkowicz had had enough: She was ready to do the one thing that so many people had asked her why she hadn’t done. With her finals finished and her boyfriend and friend by her side, she called the police.

What color are his eyes?

It only took five to 10 minutes, Sulkowicz said, for four officers to come knock on the door of her dorm room.

They wouldn’t talk to her in her room with her two friends present, because of “procedure,” according to an audio recording Sulkowicz's friend made while she was present.

So Sulkowicz came out into her dormitory hall, where classmates walked by. There, the officers told her to recount her whole story.

From the questions officers asked her, Sulkowicz quickly got the impression that they thought she was making it all up. “You didn’t call the police? Most women would have called the police,” one said, according to Sulkowicz. “You don’t even remember the color of his eyes?”

Sulkowicz said that same officer also insisted that she hadn’t been raped, telling her, "You invited him into your room. That’s not the legal definition of rape."

After the initial questioning, the officers wanted to take Sulkowicz to the station alone, but her friends said they insisted on joining. They drove to a station on New York City’s Upper West Side. 

For every single rape I’ve had, I’ve had 20 that are total bull----.

NYPD officer

When they arrived, Sulkowicz filled out her police report in a room with smooth jazz blaring. But that station didn't have a special victims division, a unit that specializes in sex crimes, so it was back into a police car to head to a station across town that had one.

The officer driving lit up a cigarette. Thinking her friend was close to the breaking point, Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, also a rising Columbia senior, told the officer her throat was hurting, and asked if he wouldn’t mind putting out his smoke.

“You’re in my office right now, alright?” he said, according to the audio recording.

At the next station, while Sulkowicz was questioned in a private room, the same officer started a conversation with her two friends. Ridolfi-Starr told him that she thought the police’s questioning had been uncomfortable.

“Well, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable,” the officer responded. “If it goes to trial, this is what’s going to happen … You think that was bad? Nah.”

“For every single rape I’ve had, I’ve had 20 that are total bull----,” he added. “It’s also my type of job to get to the truth. If that means being harsh about it, that’s what I do.”

A little later, he went on to remark that Sulkowicz couldn't even tell him the eye color of the man she was accusing.

“He made it very clear that he didn’t believe it, and that she had handled the whole case improperly,” said Erik Ramberg, Sulkowicz's boyfriend and a rising Columbia senior. “He was illustrating exactly why girls feel uncomfortable going to the police. The worst fears of a stereotype confirmed.”

When asked to comment, the New York Police Department only responded by e-mail, writing only that, "This is an active ongoing investigation by the Manhattan special victim squad."

Training for some

The graduation ceremony for 1,519 New York Police Department recruits in 2011.
Richard Drew/AP

In the last few years, the NYPD has made an effort to better handle sexual assault reports, under a crush of criticism that its officers were dismissing and minimizing complaints.

Earlier this month, the NYPD held its first dedicated 80-hour training for special victims division staff, according to Mary Haviland, the executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, who was impressed by the portion of the event she attended. But there are only a few hundred officers in the special victims division, not nearly enough to respond to every complaint of sexual violence.

In 2010, a task force appointed to address criticisms recommended new training protocols for officers dealing with sex crime victims. Upon those recommendations, the New York City Police Academy introduced a video on sexual violence response for officers in training, according to Haviland, but it’s unclear whether it’s been shown to officers already serving. The NYPD did not respond to questions about their training guidelines.

When Sulkowicz’s experience was recounted Monday at a campus sexual assault roundtable hosted by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the senator, who is drafting legislation to address campus sexual assault, said she was “shocked” that a police department of that size would have dispatched someone ill-equipped to respond.

Take your pick

As sexual misconduct on college campuses has become a national issue, with the White House weighing in last month, many commentators have questioned why colleges are in the business of handling sexual assault at all.

“There’s a multi-hundred year history of a complete failure of the criminal justice system to handle sexual assault,” explained David Lisak, a forensic consultant who has advised more than 100 colleges on how to handle sexual misconduct.

“Victims are frightened by it. There’s no confidence in it. [Not all that long ago] there was no point in reporting if you couldn’t show by the bruises, cuts and broken bones on your body that you had fought to your end and finally been overcome.” 

I would never, ever subject myself to that kind of emotional abuse.

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr

sexual assault survivor and activist

For rape victims who don’t want to go to the police, the college system provides a mechanism where they can at least get their rapist kicked out of their class, dorm or campus. Most colleges require a much lower standard of proof: more likely than not, as opposed to beyond a reasonable doubt. So in theory, on college campuses, rape victims should have much easier access to some sort of justice.

“Female sexual assault victims on college campuses, where alcohol was present and it happened behind closed doors with little or no witnesses, that conviction rate has to be 1 percent, at best,” said Brett Sokolow, the CEO of the consulting and law firm the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. “You’re basically saying, ‘Let the rapists go free.’ The only system that can hold them accountable is the college system.” 

Ridolfi-Starr was also sexually assaulted as a student at Columbia and said she would never consider reporting to the police after witnessing what Sulkowicz experienced. “I would never, ever subject myself to that kind of emotional abuse,” she said.

And if other victims were to come to her and ask whether they should report, Ridolfi-Starr said she would advise them, “Clear your schedule for 48 hours, because you’re going to want to sit and cry.” 

On bright side, said Sulkowicz, the police now have her accused rapist’s name on record, in case he were to assault somebody else. “America Tonight” chose not to publish his name because he hasn’t been arrested or charged.

But ultimately, Sulkowicz has one message for rape victims.

“If you want to go to the police, this is what to expect: You’ll be verbally abused. But at least no one will yell at you for not going to the police and getting verbally abused,” she said. “Just take your pick.”

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