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Sexual assault allegation: Woman thankful for support after dropped campaign bid

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Reed Sterbrger, a 2013 Cornell graduate, reads a statement before Ithaca’s Town Hall meeting on Sept. Sarah Mearhoff / Staff video

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Note: An earlier version of this story said representatives from Cornell University’s media relations department did not respond to requests for comment. Cornell’s Senior Director of Media Relations John Carberry responded via email Friday afternoon, stating the university could not provide the requested information, adding: “Release of information from student records is protected by federal law.”

A woman whose allegations of sexual assault prompted a Tompkins legislature candidate to drop his bid Thursday night said she is grateful for the support she has received since telling her story.

Allie Riggs, a 2013 Cornell University alumna who now resides and works in Brooklyn, first told The Cornell Daily Sun this week that fellow Class of 2013 student Reed Steberger sexually assaulted her in May 2010. Steberger, 27, had been campaigning to represent Tompkins County Legislature’s Fourth District.

Steberger confirmed Riggs’ allegations Thursday in a public statement ahead of a scheduled candidate debate at Ithaca Town Hall, as well as in an email to campaign supporters. Steberger then dropped out of the campaign before leaving the event, hosted by the Tompkins County League of Woman Voters. The debate, with incumbent Rich John for the Democratic nomination, was cancelled.

“Partly because of the alcohol I had consumed and partly because I did not yet have a fully developed understanding of consent, I did not recognize when our sex became non-consensual,” Steberger said. “Regardless of my intentions, I caused harm through my actions.”

He added: “In a number of past relationships, I did not understand my own difficulty in navigating the ways power and privilege shaped my behavior. I should have.”

Steberger said during his statement he “made the decision to withdraw, because I want to take what action I can to show I take these issues seriously.”

Since 2015, Steberger has worked at the Multicultural Resource Center as a facilitator, trainer and organizer, according to his campaign website.

Riggs, 26, said she decided to come forward after learning about Steberger’s campaign last week.

“We just have this history of having people in power that are not accounting for past actions,” Riggs said in a phone interview Friday. “We just have this climate of hypocrisy where people are being accused of sexual violence and violence against women and not owning up to it.”

During and after the process of coming forward with her story to The Sun, Riggs said she has felt supported by peers and community members, and she is “grateful for all of the people who have come together to make this known and to reveal what was previously not revealed.”

The alleged assault took place on Cornell’s annual Slope Day on May 7, 2010. Riggs and Steberger, both freshmen who had a previous relationship with one another, were under the influence of alcohol when Riggs said she went home with Steberger.

Riggs said what began as an argument turned into consensual foreplay, then nonconsensual sex. She said she left Steberger’s place of residence, then soon went to Cayuga Medical Center to complete a rape kit.

Riggs said she reported the assault to the Cornell University Police Department and filed a complaint with the university’s judicial administrator at the time.

Riggs said after months of pursuing her case, the university told her it couldn’t be settled until September of the following academic year.

Cornell’s Senior Director of Media Relations John Carberry responded to a request for comment via email Friday afternoon, stating the university could not provide the requested information and adding, “Release of information from student records is protected by federal law.”

Riggs said she decided to end the investigation, saying “I was 19. I didn’t want to have that following me around during my school year. I just wanted to be a normal student.”

She continued, “I don’t regret it. I believe that I could have gone to a hearing with it. I was prepared to and we were preparing everything to go to a hearing when I decided that it was too much of an emotional upheaval for me at the time, and I decided not to go through with it.”

Riggs and Steberger thus resolved the complaint by coming to a joint agreement in August 2010, which required Steberger not contact Riggs.

Riggs said she does not hope to take further action, legal or otherwise, against Steberger. Instead, she hopes to be an advocating voice for surivors of sexual assault.

Since the story emerged, Riggs said, others have come forward to her to share stories of sexual assault at the hands of other people that they had been hesitant to tell.

Riggs said she hopes to continue the conversation around sexual assault, “even at the most local of levels.”

“I think part of the conversation is and should be about revealing what is traditionally swept under the rug, and making known that survivors have a right to speak,” she said. “Allowing them to feel safe to do so is really important.”

Follow @sarah_mearhoff on Twitter.

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