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College sexual assault movement gaining momentum in New York

As domestic violence awareness month comes to an end, significant momentum is gaining in New York City over sexual assault on college campuses.

On Wednesday, a large gathering of students at Columbia University, as well as 130 groups around the world, carried mattresses as part of a national action day organized by “Carry that Weight Together."

“Carry that Weight Together” is a response to Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz’s performance art piece. Sulkowicz has been carrying her mattress around campus since the semester started to bring awareness to sexual assault on campus, and to have her alleged rapist expelled.

“The climate here at Columbia is overwhelmingly supportive of survivors,” said Barnard senior Allie Rickard, an organizer of the "collective carries" that help Sulkowicz carry her mattress.

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Rickard said multiple student organizations are working to revise Columbia’s sexual assault policy, which doesn’t “explicitly say yes means yes.” Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an overhaul on state university sexual assault policies. SUNY trustees passed a resolution that in part, requires both parties to give consent before engaging in sexual activities, and also includes an immunity policy to protect those who report a sexual assault and further training for police, students, staff and bystanders.

Rickard, as well as Columbia University student and sexual assault victim, Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, say that university deans have the last word when it comes to punishments for sexual assault.

Ridolfi-Starr, a senior who said she was assaulted during her freshman year, said it wasn't until after she spoke to Sulkowicz around the same time that she came to terms and understood her “assault as assault.”

Ridolfi-Starr said Sulkowic’z story and efforts have created a “sense of community and support between survivors” who realized they were “part of this bigger cultural institutional failure at Columbia.”

Since she started speaking out, Ridolfi-Starr has authored the Title IX complaint against the university, and started a support group that helps with case management and prevention.

On Monday, Public Advocate Letitia James held a press conference to announce the introduction of the New York City Campus Safety Act.

If passed, the legislation would provide baseline services to sexual assault victims at city colleges, increase funding to local rape crisis centers and establish a “letter of common rights” for all institutions to follow.

“The institutions that should be protecting these young students, these survivors, are part of the problem, and they’re simply failing,” James said.

James said she has met with students over the past five months, and heard “astounding” stories of sentences for campus rapists overturned by administrators, and victims being questioned by “unprofessional” police officers.

The public advocate said schools with 6,000 or more students average one rape per day during the school year, and said one in five women are victims of rape or attempted rape on campuses. Some 42 percent tell no one, James said.

Later Wednesday, Columbia released a statement saying the university “embraces its responsibility to be a leader in preventing sexual assault,” and acknowledging that student activists have “played in (sic) important role in encouraging these efforts.”

The statement said Columbia leads the state in sexual health resources through access to health center, quality of online resources and prevention programs, and that 9 full-time and one half-time employees at the Sexual Violence Response & Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center “sets the standard for other schools.” The university also said they provide legal counsel to both alleged victims and perpetrators.

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