The past two years at the University’s Title IX office have been anything but calm. From sweeping Title IX policy overhauls to two federal investigations, student protests, and task force meetings, various groups have continually criticized Harvard's response to sexual assault.
Amid heightened external and internal pressures, a recent federal lawsuit filed by Alyssa R. Leader ’15 stands to further scrutinize how Harvard administrators have handled sexual assault on campus. On Tuesday, Leader filed the suit, alleging that Harvard mishandled her 2015 sexual harassment complaint and denied her request to remove an unnamed male perpetrator, referred to as “John Doe,” from Cabot House.
The case is far from the first time that Harvard has faced scrutiny over sexual assault. As undergraduates held rallies to protest sexual assault training and resources, a 2015 University-wide survey found that 31 percent of senior undergraduate female respondents at the College said they had experienced some form of sexual assault during their time on campus.
Leader’s suit alleges that Harvard violated Title IX, the anti-sex discrimination law, and failed to prevent retaliation after she reported her case to several University administrators. Leader reported her case to the Office of Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution in February 2015, prompting a formal investigation into the complaint, according to the suit. Leader also reported her case to Harvard University Police Department and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.
In all instances, Leader alleges, administrators failed to protect her against sexual harassment and misinformed her of her legal rights.
Only after Leader independently obtained a restraining order against Doe did Harvard move him to another House, the suit claims. And after both students graduated from the College, the ODR found Doe “Not Responsible” for any of Leader’s claims.
Framing her suit around ongoing student criticism to Harvard’s Title IX compliance, Leader said she hopes the litigation will put more pressure on administrators to prevent sexual assault and effectively handle investigations.
“The main thing that I really want to see is accountability for how [Harvard] treated me and so many other survivors over the years,” she said in an interview.
In an emailed statement Wednesday, Rakesh Khurana, the Dean of the College and a Cabot House master, wrote that he could not comment on pending litigation and Harvard administrators “take seriously and swiftly respond to all allegations of sexual assault and harassment.”
Several Title IX legal experts predicted that Leader’s lawsuit will further complicate ongoing debates over whether universities nationwide, including Harvard, have violated Title IX.
Although the University overhauled its sexual harassment policy and procedures in 2014 and further revised them after the Law School was found in violation of Title IX, New England School of Law professor Wendy Murphy said Leader’s lawsuit questions whether the new policies are effective in practice.
“The one issue I have with all of the schools, including Harvard, is going to be implementation,” said Murphy, who filed a federal Title IX complaint against the Law School in 2010. “I don’t know enough about the specific case to advance the plaintiff’s position… but I know that if the facts alleged turn out to be true, I think Harvard has a problem with implementation.”
Still, Leader’s lawsuit may not directly affect an ongoing federal investigation into the College’s Title IX compliance if the government is already examining Leader’s case as part of the larger probe, S. Daniel Carter, an independent campus safety consultant, said.
“The investigations they’re conducting now are far more exhaustive and wide ranging, examining how institutions collectively respond to institutional violence,” he said.
Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, Leader’s case could also clarify broader requirements for accommodations that universities must provide to students during a sexual assault investigation under Title IX.
Carter said he found it peculiar that, according to the lawsuit, Harvard had not forced Doe to move out of Leader’s House, an accommodation he called “a staple with Title IX compliance for decades.”
Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, said it is not uncommon for universities to enforce Title IX differently and respond to accommodation requests on an individual basis.
“It’s really unclear exactly how this will all end up,” Lake said. “People will be watching this.”
—Staff writer Ignacio Sabate can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@ignacio_sabate
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