The recent op-ed that appeared in The Crimson about a sexual assault (“It’s Me, One of Your Statistics”) was a painful reminder that there is still work to be done in our effort to tackle sexual assault. It is critical to ensure that all people receive the support they need following such an incident. Our procedures fell short and we are deeply sorry.
When a person seeks care through Harvard University Health Services after reporting a sexual assault, there are procedures in place to engage the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response to provide support, ensuring the individual is aware of all the resources available, including evidence collection often referred to as a "rape kit." Harvard does not perform evidence collection but, as with most universities in the Boston area, we work with local hospitals that contract with Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners who administer these kits with special training and expertise. OSAPR advocates and/or officers from the Harvard University Police Department are available to take people to a hospital for evidence collection and related medical care. More information about evidence collection and SANE sites can be found on the mass.gov website.
These procedures were not followed in this instance. We do not want anyone to be in the position of having to find their own transportation to a hospital to have evidence collected, and we do not want anyone to be made to feel that the University is powerless to help with an experience they find traumatic.
HUHS is committed to an ongoing evaluation of its services and to learning how and where it can make improvements to its procedures to prevent situations as described in the recent op-ed from happening. HUHS is working to increase the frequency of training for its staff to clarify procedures and ensure that everyone seeking care at HUHS has a consistent experience. People deserve to know their options, their rights, and feel supported in the resulting decisions they make for themselves. As we work to improve education and communication initiatives about our services, we welcome the invaluable feedback of community members.
Additionally, we recognize that the prospect of participating in a complaint investigation may seem overwhelming. Over the past two years, the Office for Dispute Resolution has been investigating complaints regarding sexual harassment, including assault. Acting as a neutral entity, the office seeks to determine if policy violations have occurred. This requires investigators to be as thorough as possible, and while the average time of investigations has been cut from six months to four months, we continue to work to make the process move along more quickly while maintaining the same quality, fairness, and sensitivity.
We want to emphasize that filing a complaint with ODR is one of many choices available. Whether to file a complaint with ODR, HUPD, or both, for example, is a person’s choice. Many people choose to work with their School’s Title IX coordinator to take advantage of personalized interim measures, such as adjustments to housing, academic, or workplace arrangements, to help them feel safer on campus, regardless of whether a complaint is ever filed. Interim measures may be put in place at any time and modified to meet the individual’s evolving needs.
Over the past few years, Harvard has advanced efforts to more effectively prevent and respond to sexual assault. In 2014, the University introduced a new sexual harassment policy and launched a new office to professionally investigate complaints; every Harvard School and unit now has designated Title IX coordinators to provide prompt assistance to all community members; resources for OSAPR have doubled; a task force of students, faculty, and staff convened to recommend more effective prevention methods; and a centralized web portal (share.harvard.edu) was launched to connect people to resources. Still, there is more work to be done.
As community resources, we will work to improve coordination, expand educational programs and training, and raise awareness about available on- and off-campus options. The values and aspirations of our community demand our commitment to doing better. We will.
Paul J. Barreira, MD, is Director of the Harvard University Health Services. Alicia Oeser is the Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response. Mia Karvonides is Harvard University’s Title IX Officer and the Director of the Office for Dispute Resolution.
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