Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Harvard faces complaint with Office of Civil Rights

Published: April 11, 2014
Section: News

On March 28, two students at Harvard University filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights claiming that the school’s sexual assault policies violate protections set out by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The complaint was filed due to the school’s treatment of victims—giving them conflicting information, not adjusting accommodations adequately and reacting poorly to survivors’ claims.

Many others at Harvard are hoping that the school will change its sexual assault policies, which they believe to be unclear, inconsistent and less stringent than those at other schools. Numerous testimonials stated that the school’s discipline against perpetrators was not sufficient and that some victims were forced to live in the same dormitory or house as their assailant. A survivor successfully obtained a no-contact order, but the assailant later became building manager of where they both lived, giving the assailant access to personal information and room keys as well as the responsibility of letting residents, including his victim, into their rooms. After bringing the issue to a resident dean, the dean said that no-contact orders are not a problem “when contact is legitimately needed.”

Additionally, survivors were not made aware of the outcome of the adjudication process against perpetrators. A lack of training of administrators and support staff has led to great mishandling in attempting to support survivors. The Huffington Post reported that when a woman of color tried to report her assault, a college official replied, “It’s in your culture that men are gropey.” Another victim was told that her drinking may have caused her assault, a point that is unfortunately brought to many victims by administrators. A number of these testimonials were included in the federal complaint.

Further confusion that can prevent students from seeking out help is the muddle that occurs from jurisdiction of Harvard’s clubs. Similar to some fraternities and sororities, these clubs operate independent of the school but are a major part of the campus culture and social scene. Due to their administrative separation from the university, students who are assaulted at one of these spaces are often told to report the incident to the Cambridge police, who then refer the student back to the university police. According to a 2012 survey completed by 1,927 Harvard students, 54 percent of students believed that the male final clubs, which are undergraduate social organizations, have a negative or very negative social effect on the campus while only 25 percent believe they had a positive effect.

The rules and regulations in place at Harvard were first instituted 21 years ago, after which time policies and practices on college campuses have drastically changed. Despite being endorsed by the Undergraduate Council, the school does not use an affirmative consent standard that would call for individuals engaging in sex to say yes, instead of not saying no. Harvard is the only Ivy League school that does not follow this practice of affirmative consent. The school’s policy also does not use the standard of proof model promoted by the Office for Civil Rights since 2011. Currently, much of the burden of proof is placed on the victim to substantiate that the sexual assault occurred while the preponderance of evidence model endorsed by the Department of Education allows a student to be found guilty if the decision makers are at least 51 percent certain of the accused students responsibility for an incident. Princeton University and Harvard are the only Ivy League schools that do not follow the preponderance of evidence process. Harvard’s practice of having sexual assault hearings composed of panels without a student is also rare among colleges.

New England University professor Wendy Murphy has filed multiple complaints against Harvard and other schools for Title IX violations. She believes that not having a preponderance of evidence policy sends a hostile message to students that “we do believe you—we just don’t believe you that much,” according to The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper.

Publicity of Harvard’s shortcomings related to sexual assault has risen in the past week after an anonymous letter was published in The Crimson by a student who saw the school’s flaws firsthand. The student claims that despite repeated attempts at moving her assailant, he continues to live in the same building as she, and she accidentally runs into him five times a day. The first-person account of the situation can be summarized by its title, “Dear Harvard: You Win,” due to the student’s fervent attempts at justice, which were responded to with denial and unsupportive staff. A resident dean compared her living in the same building as her assailant to a divorced couple having to work in the same office and other advisors told her to forgive the perpetrator. Since the incident she has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression and prescribed medication to combat her mental symptoms. She believes that the main issue lies in a lack of training of staff, saying, “They want to be supportive, and they really try to be. But they have no idea how to deal with cases of sexual violence because they have not been trained sufficiently,” according to ABC News.

The school established a working group in May 2013 to investigate what resources the school offers. The working group is focused on resources currently available to students and making all available options known. After The Crimson letter was published the school formed a student task force to evaluate its policies related to sexual assault. According to the task force’s mission, student input will be essential to its research.

Jeff Neal, spokesman for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, stated the working group is meant “to assess the resources that are already available, how we communicate them to students and what additional resources or communications might be needed going forward,” as reported by The Crimson.

Students seem to be on board with a change in policy, as shown by a Harvard referendum vote in which 85 percent of undergraduates voted in favor of the school adjusting its sexual assault policies. Undergraduate Council Vice President Jennifer Zhu believes that there is still more to do.

“We need a shift in culture on campus surrounding sexual assault and rape. But that needs to be facilitated and complemented by things such as policy reforms like affirmative consent policy, more productive conversation during Freshman Week and continued awareness of sexual assault education beyond our first week in college,” according to Zhu.