Harvard is currently reviewing its policies toward sexual assault in an effort to comply with federal discrimination regulations. Furthermore, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response announced that it had formed a committee to review its policies.
Harvard must actively use this opportunity to comprehensively improve the way that cases of sexual assault on campus are currently handled. At the University, there is a significant lack of visibility toward the sexual assault proceedings—a gap in information that limits student understanding of the way in which cases are handled. Sexual assault is a topic that involves a great degree of emotional and legal repercussion, and accordingly, the University should do a better job of informing students of how one should go about reporting such instances.
To use a parallel example: During opening exercises as a freshman and even at the beginning of subsequent years, Harvard undergraduates are inundated with information regarding alcohol policies and the way to handle alcohol-related incidents. However, the dearth of information surrounding topics such as preventing sexual assault, reporting possible cases of sexual harassment, and helping fellow students in such traumatizing situations promotes an unhealthy and unsafe college environment. The University has relied too heavily on Sex Signals as the be-all end-all approach to informing the campus about the topic, and even this event is highly imperfect, because it is not approached by freshmen in a serious and thoughtful manner. The fact that sexual assault seems to go largely underreported is not puzzling considering the profound lack of campus-wide education on the sensitive topic.
Harvard makes it a point to force students to complete tasks such as Alcohol Edu; however, students are largely uninformed of the policies in place to seek recourse in the event of sexual assault. Questions that are popularly unanswered include: Who do I go to in order to report an instance of sexual assault? Does an accusation of sexual assault or harassment result in being ad boarded? Who can I turn to in order to get support? The veracity toward which Harvard treats alcohol-related incidents must ultimately parallel the University's commitment to informing all students about the way that sexual assault is treated.
Additionally, many organizations at Harvard must be revamped to deal with the issue in order to facilitate an effective solution to the problem. Firstly, University Health Services must be better equipped to deal with the problem of sexual assault. At times, alcohol poisoning tends to be the first response and first concern when victims of sexual assault are brought to the facility. Secondly, there must be more support for and coordination amongst counseling groups such as OSAPR, Room 13, and the Sexual Assault Sexual Harassment tutors.
In addition to the University taking steps to revamp sexual assault policies, we as students must also make a commitment to fostering a safe environment. Students must take an active role in providing assistance to those in times of trauma and help those who they feel have not consented to sexual advances. We should strive for a campus culture that promotes healthy relationships, wherein individuals feel safe to report instances wherein they feel that their rights have been violated.
Lastly, the definition of sexual assault on campus must be re-conceived in order to support the potential victim of such crimes. Sexual violence must be defined as that occurring in the absence of spoken or verbal consent—not that which happens when an individual expresses negative unwillingness. This change must be made in order to protect those who become victims of sexual assault in cases involving alcohol or other drugs. Ultimately, the University must take proactive measures to ensure that students feel safe coming forward and reporting suspected sexual assault and that the individuals providing advice are well-trained.