Leaning Committee Signals Major Changes in Sexual Assault Policy

Jung H. Paik

IYEOKA OKOAWO of the Spoken Word Society sings at a candle light gathering as part of “Take Back the Night” week on April 10.

As the Faculty filed into University Hall for their May 6 meeting, about 100 students held a subdued rally outside, demonstrating for a better College policy on sexual assault.

The scene was hardly reminiscent of another rally on the same steps last year, when over 200 students took part in an emotionally-charged rally to protest the Faculty’s approval of a new sexual assault policy.

The cause of that rally, which was covered by the national media, was new language on the peer dispute policy which required students who said they had been sexually assaulted to provide “sufficient corroborating evidence” before the Administrative Board would decide to hear a case.

This year’s rally had little of the earlier protest’s angry tone—this time, the demonstrators were there to support the Faculty, not to decry them.

Much has changed in a year. In response to student protest and faculty outcry over the corroboration rule, the College appointed a committee last fall—led by Professor of International Health at the School of Public Health Jennifer Leaning ’68—to re-examine Harvard’s handling of sexual assault cases.

The Leaning Committee’s findings, released this April and approved by the Faculty in late May, marked a huge victory for the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV)—the principal student activist group dealing with sexual assault—and their supporters on the Faculty.

The policies adopted out of the Leaning Committee’s findings will mean tangible changes in how the University handles sexual assault—including the virtual elimination of the controversial corroboration rule, more extensive resources for sexual assault victims and expansive educational programs for both first-years and upperclass students.

Corroborating Evidence

However, these sweeping changes were a long time in the making. In spring 2002, the Faculty quietly voted on the language of the peer dispute policy, adding the requirement of “sufficient corroborating evidence.”

But several days later, students and faculty members protested the change, saying that it would intimidate female victims and discourage them from coming forward.

And faculty members expressed concerns over the way the rule change was passed. Many said that they did not realize that so-called peer disputes included sexual assault cases.

Students in the CASV and others urged the University to reconsider its corroboration requirement, and one anonymous student filed a lawsuit with the government’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), alleging that this new rule violated Title IX laws.

In response, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and Provost Steven H. Hyman formed the Leaning Committee in May 2002 to review Harvard’s sexual assault policies, including educational programs and the resources it provides victims.

The Leaning Committee

The committee—comprised of administrators, professors, students and medical experts—launched a year-long investigation into sexual assault at Harvard.

The inclusion of two undergraduates on the committee pleased student leaders, who said they felt that they often did not have enough input in upper-level decisions.