Harvard Students Cite Sexual Assault Policy in Complaint

Two Harvard University students filed a federal complaint saying the school’s response to sexual assault is flawed and violates federal standards.

Our Harvard Can Do Better, a student group fighting campus sexual assault, said two of its members submitted the complaint on March 28 to the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. School officials have discouraged students from pursuing discipline for assailants and improperly informed students about the outcomes of sexual-assault proceedings, the group said yesterday in a statement.

Students across the U.S. have submitted complaints alleging that their schools have failed to adequately address or prevent campus sexual misconduct, which violates Title IX, the federal rule that bars gender discrimination in education. While Harvard, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is reviewing its sexual assault policies, officials have dismissed important student input, said Emily Fox-Penner, a freshman who is one of the two undergraduates filing the complaint.

“If you’re trying to find a way to make the policy more acceptable to sexual-assault survivors, is the right way to guess or to ask survivors what about the process is going wrong?” she said in a telephone interview.

Fox-Penner said she and another student submitted the complaint on behalf of nine students who were allegedly sexually assaulted. Fox-Penner said that she herself wasn’t attacked, and that the other complainant has chosen to remain anonymous.

Task Force

Harvard has created an Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, named a universitywide Title IX coordinator and trained other coordinators to deal with assaults properly, said Jeff Neal, a university spokesman, in an e-mailed statement. In a separate statement yesterday, Harvard President Drew Faust said that she asked Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research and Harvard’s former provost, to head up a task force on sexual misconduct.

The college has shown a pattern of “shunning” student voices as it develops sexual-assault policy, Fox-Penner said. When some students were invited to join a working group formed early last year, they were instructed to focus their comments on implementing existing policies, and their suggestions for change were ignored.

When the school began reviewing its policies with an eye toward change, students weren’t consulted, Fox-Penner said.

“No student has been a part of that,” she said. “Even the student body president and vice president have not been invited.”

Senators’ Letter

Twelve U.S. senators signed a letter released today calling for new federal funding to investigate sexual assaults and enforce compliance with laws at colleges and universities.

“After being victimized by a crime as deeply traumatic and personal as a sexual assault, no young man or woman should be left to fend for themselves,” Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill said in a statement accompanying the letter. “I fear that, like the U.S. military, we’re going to find systemic problems on our college campuses -- including very low reporting due to lack of protections and resources.”

McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, sent the letter to leaders of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. They requested more than $7 million in new funding to hire additional staff at the Education Department to carry out investigations and enforcement under Title IX and the Clery Act, which requires schools to report incidents of violence, including sexual assaults, to the department.

Evidence Standard

The Harvard complaint says that students received inaccurate and conflicting information from school officials about their housing options after reporting a sexual assault, and that the school’s disciplinary body, called the Administrative Board, failed to inform some students in writing of the disposition of their cases, Fox-Penner said.

The complaint also alleges that disciplinarians failed to use the “preponderance of evidence” standard, making it more difficult to find accused students responsible for sexual assaults, said Jessica Fournier, a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better. The U.S. Education Department requires use of the standard in campus hearings.

In 2012, students voted in a referendum to recommend adoption of a policy that would require an affirmative statement -- not silence -- to be considered as agreement to have sex. Harvard is the only Ivy League school that doesn’t have such an “affirmative consent” policy.

‘Outdated’ Policy

Earlier this week, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper published an anonymous letter from a student saying that she had unwanted sex with a classmate when she was intoxicated and unable to give or deny consent. Officials told her that taking her case to the school’s Administrative Board, a disciplinary body, was unlikely to be successful because of Harvard’s lack of an affirmative consent requirement.

“Our policy is so outdated and narrow in scope that it discourages survivors from entering an investigative process in the first place,” the anonymous letter said.

The lack of response to their demands “has led us to believe in the need for an externally imposed mechanism for oversight of the policy review process,” the student group said in its statement yesterday.

‘Forthright Evaluation’

The task force announced yesterday will include faculty and students from across Harvard, Faust said in the statement. Hyman, who is a former director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda Maryland, helped create Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

Dealing with sexual assault “will require us to make a forthright evaluation of our campus, to ask wide-ranging questions about the environment that enables sexual misconduct to take place and the nature and adequacy of our institutional response,” Faust said in the statement.

Violations of Title IX can lead to fines and loss of eligibility for federal student grants and loans. The Education Department’s OCR received the complaint and is reviewing it to determine whether to investigate, said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman.

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