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The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) decided yesterday that Harvard’s procedure for investigating sexual assault does not violate the rights of victims—but the ruling on behalf of the University came after Harvard changed the wording of its policy.
The decision, expressed in a letter distributed yesterday, was the official response to a complaint filed last June by an anonymous student.
The student claimed that last spring’s change in the University’s policy for investigating accusations of sexual assault—requiring “sufficient independent corroboration”—violated Title IX laws against gender-based discrimination.
After the complaint was filed, the University changed the language of the policy this September to “corroborating information” and then again to “supporting evidence.”
OCR’s letter, written by Thomas J. Hibino, who directs the regional office of the U.S. Department of Education, ruled that Harvard’s policy—in its current form—does not violate the civil rights of victims of sexual assault.
“OCR did not find sufficient evidence to establish that the changes to the grievance procedures, as explained by the College staff, deprive students of access to a process providing a prompt and equitable resolution of their complaints,” the letter read.
Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 expressed satisfaction with the results of the suit yesterday.
“I am pleased that the Office of Civil Rights concluded, as the University believed all along, that the College’s disciplinary processes are consistent with Title IX,” Lewis wrote in an e-mail.
While the ruling came in favor of the College, both the lawyer for the student and members of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV) said that they saw the investigation as a positive step.
“OCR rarely rules against a college,” said Wendy B. Murphy, the attorney for the complainant. “It’s a coercive and remedial agency rather than a punitive one, and I see some dramatic changes in Harvard’s policy.”
Most notably, Murphy cited the change in Harvard’s official policy statement from “sufficient independent corroboration” to “supporting information.”
She said that in her opinion removing the “sufficient” eliminated the discretion the University would have had in determining who had enough evidence to have his or her case heard.
Murphy said that a woman who tells friends verbally about an alleged assault but has no hard evidence, such as a witness or an e-mail, should be able to initiate a full disciplinary procedure thanks to the most recent changes in the wording.
“She gets all the bells and whistles, which is dramatically different from what she got a year ago,” Murphy said.
Furthermore, Murphy said that the College will now make sure that a woman who has only her own word will still “be counted” by having a statement filed with the Administrative Board and also require a responsive statement from the accused student.
Finally, Murphy emphasized that because of the OCR investigation, Harvard has clarified its policy to include all forms of discrimination, including racial, ethnic and sexuality-based forms of discrimination and harassment.
“The original policy was announced as applying only to sexual assault victims. We’ve made Harvard backpedal on that,” she said.
Members of CASV, who filed a statement of support for the student complainant in the OCR case, expressed guarded optimism last night about the new wording but worried about its implementation.
“We hope that this means that Harvard will now fully investigate every case of sexual assault that has been brought forward, because that is what must happen if we are to have a safe community,” said Alisha C. Johnson ’04, a member of CASV. “And CASV will be watching to make sure that the apparent change that OCR points to is actually a meaningful change, not just one of semantics.”
Last spring, the Faculty’s approval of the new policy requiring “sufficient independent corroboration,” came under fire from students and professors alike. Members of CASV held a protest outside of University Hall.
In response, the University convened a committee, the Leaning Committee, to review Harvard’s sexual assault policy.
Johnson said that CASV anticipates that the committee’s proposals, which will be released this month, will set a more positive precedent for other universities than OCR’s current ruling does.
“CASV still believes that requiring corroboration, no matter what it is called, is bad and prevents survivors from coming forward and having investigations,” she said.
“We hope that other colleges will also be paying attention to the Leaning Committee report that will come out later this month, which will recommend a total revamping of how sexual assault is dealt with at Harvard.”
—Staff writer Sarah M. Seltzer can be reached at email@example.com.
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