Reassessing Rape Response

Harvard should support rape victims in taking their cases to the police

Approximately 25 percent of college women have survived rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Some of those women go to Harvard.

From 2011 to 2012, the number of rapes on Harvard’s Cambridge and Longwood campuses reported confidentially rose from 12 to 23, according to the Harvard University Police Department’s annual campus security report. Though the spike in numbers may be attributable partly to an increase in reporting, the change certainly does not indicate a declining incidence of rape.

This upward trend underscores the need for Harvard to respond appropriately and effectively to student rape reports. Rape, by virtue of the social stigma associated with it and psychological trauma resultant from it, is often handled outside of the criminal justice system. As we have said before, Harvard ought to ensure that effective mechanisms exist on campus to provide victims who seek on-campus disciplinary action with fair treatment. But the University also must support rape survivors in filing official reports with the police.

A rape victim has the opportunity to report his or her assault confidentially—without revealing the victim’s name, address, and additional identifying information to the police—because rape and other forms of indecent assault differ in nature from garden variety crime. Victims of sexual assault may fear retaliation by the crime’s perpetrator or re-victimization during the criminal justice process, whether that means living the experience over while recounting details or facing police doubts. In fact, over half of rape victims nationwide do not report the assault. 16 percent say they fear reprisal, and 6 percent point to perceived police bias.

For these reasons, Harvard chooses—and chooses wisely—not to force students who have been assaulted to file official reports with the police. All the same, perpetrators of rape often do not face the punishment they may deserve when victims do not take their cases to the police. Even when assaulted students authorize on-campus investigations, rapists rarely face severe punishment: From 2005 to 2010, not a single case of sexual misconduct that went before the Harvard College Administrative Board ended in permanent expulsion, though Harvard has since begun reexamining its policies regarding sexual assault and Ad Board deliberation.

Insofar as it can do so sensitively, Harvard should encourage victims to move forward with their cases and press criminal charges. The University could accomplish this by explaining the criminal investigation process in depth to survivors, reassuring them—among other things—that in 95 percent of cases the prosecution and defense reach a plea agreement that spares the victim the ordeal of testifying in court. Harvard must also stress and strengthen the systems it has in place that guarantee a survivor’s safety on campus in the midst of an investigation.

Slowly and steadily, Harvard has been taking steps to revise its response to rape on campus. But as always, more work remains to be done, and this year’s HUPD report is an indication of just that.


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