Civil Rights Office Opens Investigation of College’s Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

The Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into the College’s handling of sexual assault cases, roughly a month after at least one member of the student activist campaign Our Harvard Can Do Better filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the College’s policies violate Title IX.

“OCR has a Title IX sexual violence case under investigation involving Harvard University,” wrote Dorie Nolt, press secretary at the Department of Education, in an emailed statement. Another Department of Education spokesperson confirmed that this investigation “involves Harvard College.”

The Department of Education denied The Crimson’s Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the complaint last week, writing in a letter that access to all 38 pages were denied in full because the documents’ release “could interfere with OCR’s investigation and resolution of the case at this time.”

Our Harvard Can Do Better organizer Emily M. Fox-Penner ’17, one of two undergraduates to file the complaint, has said that the complaint includes testimonials from sexual assault victims. According to Fox-Penner and Jessica R. Fournier ’17, also of Our Harvard Can Do Better, the complaint requested that the College adopt a policy of affirmative consent—in which partners must verbally affirm their consent to participate in sexual activity.

Fox-Penner and Fournier have also previously said that the complaint calls for the Administrative Board to make its burden of proof standard “preponderance of the evidence,” which requires just over 50 percent certainty to determine guilt in sexual assault cases, among other points.

“I’m glad that OCR has decided to take this step,” said Fox-Penner, who was officially notified late last week that the Office for Civil Rights had agreed to hear her complaint. “I hope Harvard takes it as an invitation to engage in constructive dialogue with students and take some concrete and substantive steps forward on policies and practices.”

Fox-Penner added that she was given a timeline and procedural outline in a meeting with the Office for Civil Rights on Monday. According to Fox-Penner, the Office for Civil Rights has started compiling a list of relevant student groups and administrators and is beginning conversations with students and complainants. Campus focus groups are planned for the beginning of the fall semester, she said.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Jeff Neal declined to comment on the complaint Monday.

News of the Office for Civil Rights investigation comes less than two weeks after University President Drew G. Faust told undergraduates at an open forum that Harvard had submitted a revised sexual assault policy to the same office for review. The revised policy, which, if enacted, would apply University-wide, has been updated for compliance to Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded universities. Mia Karvonides, Harvard’s inaugural Title IX officer, had convened a University-wide working group composed of representatives across schools last May to evaluate Harvard’s policies.

Neal wrote in an emailed statement Monday that Harvard “will move quickly to announce and implement” the revised policies after it receives feedback from the Office for Civil Rights.

“Once in place, the new policy and procedures will significantly enhance how Harvard responds to incidents of sexual misconduct among University students, faculty and staff,” Neal wrote.

In early April, Faust also announced the formation of a presidential task force on sexual misconduct, to be chaired by former University Provost Steven E. Hyman.

The recently opened investigation is not the Office for Civil Rights's first look into the College’s sexual assault policies. In 2002, an undergraduate filed a complaint alleging that the College’s policies violated Title IX after the approval of a change to the way the Ad Board disciplined cases of alleged sexual assault. The Office for Civil Rights later opened an investigation into the College’s policies but ultimately found that they were not in violation of the law. It took the Office for Civil Rights less than a year after opening the investigation to come to that decision.

Harvard Law School’s sexual assault policies are also currently still under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights, nearly four years after a complaint was filed in 2010.

—Staff writer Madeline R. Conway can be reached at mconway@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MadelineRConway.

—Staff writer Steven S. Lee can be reached at steven.lee@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenSJLee.

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