Late at night—as often as two or three times a week—Sarah A. Rankin, the director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, wakes up in the dead of night to the ringing of her cell phone.
She answers the calls, which range from late-night panic attacks about past sexual assaults to questions about what to do immediately after a rape has taken place. Some nights she gets in her car and rushes to meet the caller, occasionally taking the person to the hospital herself.
As Harvard’s go-to contact for victims of sexual assault, Rankin has taken on the job of listening to, talking to, and advising survivors of sexual assault, no matter the time of day or night.
“Someone has to be available 24/7,” she says. “People need to talk about it when they need to talk about it.”
After seven years, OSAPR has established itself as a hub for issues surrounding sexual assault—whether by helping recent victims cope with their traumatic ordeals, educating the campus at large about sexual violence, or rallying men on campus to play a role in combatting these often overlooked issues.
The two and a half-member office has, by most accounts, been an invaluable resource for undergraduates, though beginning next academic year it will face the challenge of expanding its services to the entire University without any additional staff or resources.
CONSTRUCTING A NEW RESOURCE
After two high-profile cases of sexual assault occurred on Harvard’s campus in 2002, students and faculty urged the administration to address the problems surrounding sexual assault, according to Susan B. Marine, assistant dean of students and director of the Harvard College Women’s Center.
Additionally, a student anonymously filed a complaint about a change in the College’s procedure for handling sexual assault cases, which launched a U.S. Department of Education investigation to determine whether the University was violating federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs.
While the inquiry eventually concluded that Harvard had not violated federal regulations, the investigation resulted in the formation of the Leaning Committee, which re-evaluated the College’s sexual assault policies. The committee eventually recommended the creation of OSAPR, an increase in sexual assault prevention education, and several changes to the procedure the Administrative Board—the College’s primary disciplinary body—follows when handling sexual assault cases.
“It would never have happened without student activism holding the institution accountable,” says Marine, the original director of OSAPR. “We had the opportunity to build a model program dedicated to comprehensive services for survivors.”
The Leaning Committee, chaired by Human Rights Professor Jennifer Leaning, ruled that the office should employ two and a half full-time staff members, establish a 24-hour crisis line, and coordinate events signifying commitment to education and prevention work on campus.
The office opened in July 2003, and by the accounts of students and administrators, it has been successful in achieving the objectives set forth by the committee.
Marine says that prior to the creation of OSAPR, the only recourse for students who had been sexually assaulted was University Health Services, which she says did not always have the resources for the specific physical and psychological aid needed by victims.