Complaint Filed on Sexual Assault Change

In filing with Department of Education, student alleges that new policy violates Title IX

A Harvard undergraduate filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education yesterday, alleging a recent change to the University’s sexual assault policy violates federal guarantees of gender equality in education.

The complaint, filed in the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), contests a new requirement that a victim produce corroborating evidence before the College’s Administrative Board begins a full investigation.

It argues that requiring corroborating evidence violates Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs.

“The corroboration rule threatens a disproportionate impact on women...because the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated against women,” the complaint reads.

But Assistant Dean of the College Karen E. Avery ’87 said she does not think Title IX applies to the sexual assault policy.

“What Title IX is talking about is taking prompt action,” she said. “It’s not that we’re not doing that. Everyone will be taken seriously and action will be taken promptly. We’re not going to ignore victims of sexual assault at all.”

The complaint goes on to say victims are unlikely to find corroboration because often the only two witnesses are the victim and the accused.

“[That] is tantamount to denying 8 out of 10 victims of sexual assault access to grievance procedures,” said Wendy Murphy, an attorney who worked on the complaint and had previously worked with the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV). “Grievance procedures have to be prompt and equitable.”

The complaint also says a new policy that would refer some cases to mediators violates OCR guidelines prohibiting sexual assault matters from being resolved through mediation.

OCR first received the complaint yesterday and officials will take a few weeks to determine if there will be an investigation of Harvard’s policy, said OCR spokesperson Roger Murphy. If there is an investigation, he said, cases generally range from three to six months.

Murphy said he has not examined the case, but he said OCR’s guidelines only apply to sexual harassment, which is considered a civil rights violation—not to sexual assault, which is a criminal offense.

Avery said she was not surprised by the complaint.

“I knew that was something in people’s heads,” she said.

The student, who spoke on condition that her name not be printed, said she hopes the complaint will force Harvard to revisit the policy and stop the implementation of it this fall.

“I think it’s important for the policy to be reviewed,” she said. “Harvard has not given any indication that it’s willing to do that on its own.”

The student, a CASV member, said she filed the complaint after discussing the issue with lawyers interested in the matter, including attorneys at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

“[The complaint] is not meant to be confrontational,” said Wendy Murphy, the attorney. “One of the reasons it was done now was that there could be clarity before it becomes implemented in the fall.”

Members of CASV declined to comment on the complaint yesterday.

—Anne K. Kofol contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Nalina Sombuntham can be reached at sombunth@fas.harvard.edu.