Leaning Towards Reform

Faculty should endorse, and go beyond, the CASAH report’s recommendations for change

The Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard (CASAH) has issued its report and recommendations on student education, survivor support and discipline of sexual violence, which now will undergo a public commentary period until the Faculty discusses and votes on its recommendations in May. The committee—made up of students, faculty, administrators and independent experts—formulated recommendations after 60 meetings in Houses, small groups and interviews: these discussions with students, faculty and administrators, including Ad Board members, resulted in an extremely comprehensive report. The full implementation of CASAH’s numerous plans would go a long way to addressing sexual violence at the University.

One of the most important recommendations is the creation of an Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response to coordinate University services and resources to for assault survivors. Someone from the office would be available by beeper at all times so that after a sexual assault, a student could immediately be in touch with the office’s staff to help guide the student through medical treatment, the disciplinary process and University support services. The office would be a centralized, consistent and reliable resource for students, and would alleviate many of the persistent complaints surrounding Harvard’s policies on sexual assault. Its incorporation of student-run and other University services will help to integrate and clarify students’ support options; a central but discreet location will make the office accessible and comfortable to students. Should demand for the office exceed its planned size, we hope the University will work to expand the office to meet student need.

CASAH also made numerous and detailed recommendations on how to improve sexual assault education. Devoting resources to education is one of the clearest ways to prevent sexual assault and to signal the University’s concern about its presence on campus. Current programs do not provide outreach or education after students’ first year, and even the program for first-year students leaves much to be desired. In their first week at Harvard, students now attend a 90-minute “Safe Community Night” program with their proctor groups, 30 minutes of which is devoted to education about sexual assault. In place of this relatively short program—mixed in with many other topics and done entirely in a large lecture format—CASAH recommends an event on a separate evening to discuss sexual assault in large setting, combined with additional small workshops within proctor groups. The large session would be run by professional educators, rather than by a senior administrator, as it now is. This revised approach would allow for more in-depth education, would help students process the discussion and would demonstrate Harvard’s commitment to this issue.

Beyond meetings at the start of students’ first year, however, it is essential to continue education throughout the Harvard career. CASAH proposed House-based education at the beginning of the sophomore year, but these programs should be carried on throughout junior and senior years to keep students mindful of this serious issue as concerns about sexual assault change as students go through college. Apart from formal educational sessions, continued public awareness about sexual assault would help reinforce education measures.

CASAH also recommends collaboration between the University and student group leaders—particularly those of sports teams and social clubs. We are glad Harvard is finally recognizing how involved such groups are in setting the tone of social life on and around campus, but the University must couple education and outreach with disciplinary action when particular groups have a pattern of sexual assault complaints against them. Collaborating with coaches, faculty advisors and graduate boards can hopefully reinforce to teams, groups and clubs that the University will not tolerate sexual violence or its facilitation or encouragement.

In addition to education geared at prevention, CASAH makes many substantive recommendations for support services. Training proctors and residential advisors will be extremely valuable; first-years, who are extremely vulnerable to sexual assault and less familiar with university administration, should feel comfortable talking to their advisors about these issues. Training preceptors, prefects and TFs can also be valuable, but it should not distract from in-depth training for the residential advisors. Centralizing information on a single website like “help.harvard.edu” will also be beneficial in ensuring that students can reach the appropriate resources. Emergency information should include sexual assault response information and be posted in every room on campus.

Reviewing discipline was not among the primary charges of the committee, but it made was included that the topics that the committee addressed. A full review of disciplinary policies is still urgently needed; indeed, CASAH notes that complaints about the current disciplinary process—from students who had been through it and from members of the Ad Board themselves—were common and reflected a general lack of confidence in the current policies.

Ultimately a separate board with the disciplinary powers of the Ad Board is needed for independent expertise on sexual assault and the ability to consider each case with care and attention. Sexual assault cases are of an entirely different nature than any of the other issues that the Ad Board considers. They require genuine professional knowledge, beyond procedural training. The many demands on the Ad Board apart from sexual assault and the positions of its members within the academic community make it prone to appear callous, inconsistent and uninviting to sexual assault survivors. Such a recommendation was not within the scope of CASAH, but is much needed.

The report does recommend the creation of the position of “Single Fact Finder” to investigate sexual assault cases. But investigations would gain legitimacy if they were conducted by a team of two investigators. Such a team could investigate more broadly and avoid suspicions of bias.

CASAH also noted complaints from students about the opacity of the Ad Board process. If the Ad Board is going to continue to hear sexual assault cases, more information is needed about the details of the process so students can make informed decisions about whether to pursue a case. The Ad Board has developed a bad enough reputation for its handling of sexual assault cases that openness and clarification are essential for students to feel comfortable entering the disciplinary process.

The public comment period and public forum this Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. in Ticknor Lounge will hopefully allow further community input on the recommendations; with adjustments from this process—as well as any forthcoming concurring opinions from committee members—we hope the Faculty will adopt the report at its May 20 meeting. We will then look to the deans, Provost and President to ensure full implementation of this report and to carry on the dialogue that CASAH began.