Civil Rights Office Interviews Students for Title IX Probe

Attorneys from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights are soliciting student input on sexual violence on Harvard’s campus this week as part of the government’s nearly year-long investigation into the College’s compliance with anti-sex discrimination law Title IX.

OCR interviewed students on Wednesday and plans to continue meeting with students on Thursday, according to a Doodle poll initiated by Olga Benjamin, OCR’s lead investigator for the case.

Since they opened an investigation into the College’s Title IX adherence last April in response to a complaint filed by student activist group Our Harvard Can Do Better, investigators have met with members of the group and visited campus last fall.

OCR’s move to interview students on campus represents the most known and visible attempt by the government to garner broad student feedback as part of the investigation, according to Jessica R. Fournier ’17, an organizer for Our Harvard Can Do Better. She and Emily M. Fox-Penner ’17, who is also an organizer for the group, said they have interacted with OCR investigators on multiple occasions.

According to Denise Horn, an assistant press secretary at the Department of Education, OCR typically gathers information through different avenues over the course of an investigation, including on campus interviews. In an emailed statement, Horn added that investigators can hold focus group discussions or office hours for individual interviews.

“The purpose of these sessions is to gather information relevant to OCR’s investigation and its assessment of the school’s compliance with civil rights laws,” Horn wrote.

Both administrators and members of Our Harvard Can Do Better have publicized OCR’s two-day visit this week, emphasizing in communications with students that it is important that their opinions and experiences are incorporated in the investigation. The visit also coincides with Harvard’s ongoing sexual conduct climate survey, a separate measure to garner student feedback on sexual violence on campus that opened more than a week ago.

“Talking to students is consistently a thing that they’ve said they’re most interested in,” Fox-Penner said, referring to OCR’s investigators. Fournier said she had provided OCR with the names of various student groups she recommended they interview.

In an email to undergraduates on Monday, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana informed students of OCR’s upcoming presence on campus and gave them Benjamin’s email.

Benjamin did not respond to a request for comment, but another OCR attorney, Elizabeth Bagdon, referred The Crimson to an Education Department spokesperson.

According to Alicia Oeser, the director of Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, her office has not yet been contacted by OCR. Oeser said “that is expected” in large part because of OSAPR’s confidentiality policies.

Oeser said she passed along information about OCR’s visit to two student groups affiliated with her office, Consent Assault Awareness and Relationship Educators and RESPONSE peer counselors.

“We make sure our student groups have that info,” Oeser said. “It is something that we want to be communicated to people.”

Fox-Penner said she hopes OCR will closely examine the transparency of the College’s Administrative Board, the disciplinary body that hands down sanctions in sexual assault cases, while Fournier said she hopes the College will incorporate mandatory Title IX training for all undergraduates. Both students said they are optimistic that OCR will respond to students’ feedback.

“I think this Office [for] Civil Rights is listening to students and does care what they have to say, and will take that into account when they make their recommendations,” Fournier said.

In December, OCR concluded another Title IX investigation at Harvard Law School, which they found in violation of the law. In the wake of that decision, experts predicted that the College, in its own investigation, would face increased scrutiny.

Harvard has dramatically restructured the way it investigates sexual assault complaints since last spring when the College investigation opened—the University has since implemented a new Title IX policy—but debate surrounding the issue remains. Law School professors have balked at the policy, and the new centralized office tasked with investigating student sexual harassment complaints across the University still remains understaffed.

Fournier and Fox-Penner said OCR has not provided them with a specific timeline for the ongoing investigation.

—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at noah.delwiche@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.

—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Ivan.Levingston@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.

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