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Harvard Graduates Wear Red Tape in Sexual Assault Policy Protest

Graduation Caps with Red Tape
Harvard students at their commencement ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 29, 2014. Photographer: John Lauerman/Bloomberg

Dozens of Harvard University seniors marked their graduation caps with red tape in support of victims of sexual assault and to protest the school’s response to campus attacks.

Students put a stripe of crimson tape on the edge of their mortarboards at the school’s 363rd commencement today in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Harvard, the oldest and richest U.S. college, has come under increasing criticism from students saying that programs to prevent sexual assault are inadequate and not enough is being done so that victims can continue their studies. While President Drew Faust has appointed a task force to study the issue, student voices haven’t been heard in the effort to create policy, said Kate Sim, a graduating senior who helped found Our Harvard Can Do Better, a victims’ advocacy group.

“I would like to see more than task forces,” Sim said in an interview. “Policy change is a long process, but I would like to see students more integrated into the change-making progress.”

A group of undergraduates filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that Harvard’s undergraduate college, failed to comply with Title IX, which bars schools from gender-based discrimination. Insufficient response to sexual assault is a violation of the rule.

‘Our Class’

The OCR began an investigation of Harvard College last month. The Title IX complaint filed against the school alleged college officials have discouraged students from pursuing discipline for assailants and improperly informed students about the outcomes of sexual-assault proceedings, Our Harvard Can Do Better said in an April 3 statement.

Harvard Law School is also under review for alleged Title IX violations. At least 55 colleges in total are under similar probes, the Education Department said May 1.

Campus sexual assault is “an issue that the college is trying to bring to the forefront and it’s especially topical for our class,” said Zena Mengesha, a graduating senior who wore the tape on her cap. “I want to stand in solidarity.”

Several Harvard student groups banded together to call attention to the sexual assault issue at graduation, Sim said. Lily Ostrer, a graduating senior who isn’t a member of the Our Harvard group, was helping to organize the demonstration.

“It’s important for students to recognize the power of their voices,” Ostrer said in a phone interview. “This is a good time to recognize how activism and organizing are important.”

Alumni Action

Students at at least two other Ivy League schools -- Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and Columbia University in New York -- also wore markings on their graduation caps to call attention to sexual assault.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is delivering the commencement address to Harvard graduates today. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.

Some Harvard alumni have also said that they want to push the school to do more to prevent sexual violence and accommodate victims. Lisa Paige, president of a group known as Harvard Women, said she’s encouraging fellow alumni to withhold donations to the school until its policies and practices improve.

Harvard is in the midst of a $6.5 billion fundraising campaign scheduled to end in 2018. For now, Paige said her stance is personal and applies only to her, not the entire Harvard Women group.

Consent Education

“I refuse to check my conscience at the gates of Harvard Yard,” Paige said in a telephone interview. “I will be urging every Harvard alumnus I speak with to withhold their donations to the campaign.”

Instead, she said she’s urging alumni to divert their donations to Speak About It, a Portland, Maine-based group that educates college students about consent and other issues related to sex.

Harvard has raised more than $3.8 billion toward its goal, and $1 billion of that amount was contributed since the school made the campaign public in September, according to a statement released today. More than 100,000 donors have contributed, the university said.

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