Harvard’s new procedure to handle sexual assault cases does not violate Title IX gender discrimination laws, the University said in its response to a complaint about the policy filed with the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
The response, filed on Sept. 9 but just made available by OCR, reiterates Harvard’s commitment to addressing claims of sexual harassment and details the Administrative Board procedure as well as on-campus resources available to victims of sexual harassment.
An anonymous student filed a complaint against Harvard last June after the Faculty voted to require corroborating evidence in peer dispute cases before launching an investigation. The student alleged that this policy discriminates against complaintants in sexual assault cases—and violates Title IX because these cases are mostly brought by women.
Harvard’s report argues that the corroborating evidence requirement is intended to “streamline a process that is often emotionally taxing for the students involved and, importantly, to expand the options available to students alleging sexual misconduct.”
“Under the revised procedures, the Board will continue to investigate every complaint of sexual misconduct,” University attorney Donna L. Russell wrote in the report.
But Wendy Murphy, a Boston lawyer who helped to file the student complaint in June, said she is not convinced by the response.
She said the process cannot be fair to complainants if the Board refuses to hear cases in which there are only the statements of the complainant and the accused.
“Credibility disputes are the earmark of these kinds of cases,” Murphy said. “What’s really troublesome is that they still don’t say it is possible for us to figure out what to do in a case where all we have is one student saying it happened and the other student saying it didn’t.”
Sarah B. Levit-Shore ’04, a member of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV), said she thought the report showed no concern for the welfare of complainants in the Ad Board process.
“In some cases the language is misleading and in other cases it just doesn’t seem to understand sexual assault, to be not taking it seriously,” Levit-Shore said. “Not only are they not hearing from students but they’re not understanding how students see this.”
The University said in its report that members of the faculty committee which developed the new policy consulted “student counselors” before recommending the change.
But CASV member Ellenor J. Honig ’04 said she does not believe any students were consulted.
“Students, to the best of our knowledge, were not consulted,” she said. “‘Student counselors’ could very well mean ‘people who counsel students,’ in which case Harvard obviously phrased its argument in ambiguous terms.”
The University cited the Leaning Committee as an example of its efforts to improve resources for sexual assault victims. But Levit-Shore said that argument was “misleading,” because the committee was only formed after CASV demonstrated against the Ad Board change last spring.
Murphy said reading Harvard’s response makes her more confident in that the student complaint will succeed.
And regardless of the outcome of the OCR investigation, she said she may file a case in federal court challenging the new procedure as a denial of due process or a violation of Title IX.
OCR must make a decision regarding the complaint by early February in order to comply with its self-imposed time limit of 180 days since it began investigating the complaint this summer.
Harvard officials have refused to comment on the investigation while the decision is still pending.
—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at email@example.com.