Harvard Reviews Sexual Assault Policies

Harvard is currently undergoing a review of the sexual assault policies in place across the University’s different schools as part of a larger effort to monitor its compliance with federal discrimination guidelines.

According to Chief Diversity Officer Lisa M. Coleman, the Office of the Assistant to the President has, since Spring 2010, been gathering information in a review of its policies’ compliance with the law regarding gender, race, and disability. This process has focused on information collection and program development, rather than policy revision, Coleman wrote in an email to The Crimson on Wednesday.

In addition, the Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response recently formed a committee to review its procedures. OSAPR announced last week that it would postpone student participation on the committee, despite having previously appointed student members.

The review process was initiated as part of a larger investigation of University policies. But the re-examination of sexual assault practices became particularly timely following the April release of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) new guidelines for university sexual misconduct policies, which fall under federal Title IX regulations.

The OCR’s "Dear Colleague" letter came in the wake of a slew of complaints filed against institutions including Yale University and Harvard Law School for creating "hostile sexual environments."

In the months following the letter, universities across the country, including both Yale and Princeton, have adjusted their procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct complaints and sexual assault investigations.

"There’s been a rush to come into compliance," said Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law and policy. "Everyone’s been in a scramble."

Lake added that the new federal guidelines have also experienced "pushback" from advocates of rights for accused students.

According to Lake, a few of the guidelines that the letter set out will be particularly important as Harvard considers its current policies. In particular, the letter has raised questions about the decentralized nature of Harvard’s investigatory system—in which each school determines their own procedure to deal with internal cases.

For example, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ procedures require that the Administrative Board be "sufficiently persuaded" by the evidence provided. On the other hand, the Law School currently uses the more stringent "burden of proof" standard, which requires "clear and convincing" evidence to find a defendant guilty. The new OCR guidelines, in contrast, require universities to follow the lower "preponderance of evidence" standard, which can find a defendant guilty with a simple majority of the evidence pointing to that verdict.

Over the past few months, universities have implemented a number of changes to their sexual assault policies, including an expanded definition of sexual assault, a lower standard of evidence to find a defendant guilty, and more training for students and university staff.

Lake said that one particularly popular move has been the contracting of independent companies offering sexual assault training sessions.

Yale implemented a new definition of sexual misconduct that encompasses speech and online communication, created a new university-wide committee to handle all complaints, and mandated that all student organizations participate in prevention training, the Yale Daily News reported earlier this month. Similarly, Princeton edited its sexual misconduct policies to include more explicit definitions of misconduct, assault, and rape, and mandated that all investigations conclude within a 45 day period, according to the Daily Princetonian.

—Staff writer Stephanie B. Garlock can be reached at sgarlock@college.harvard.

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