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Survivors Are Not a Liability

By Jessica R. Fournier, Emily M. Fox-Penner, and Kate J. Sim

This past fall, we the Harvard student body received a community advisory alert from the Harvard University Police Department about a sexual assault near campus. The alert contained a list of safety tips, including “wear sneakers or shoes that allow for added mobility” and “walk with confidence.” In this email, Harvard demonstrated the following strategy for preventing sexual assault: Encourage potential victims to run faster. But when attacked by a fellow student in a dorm room, House, or final club, where are students supposed to run?

Community advisories like the one Harvard sent out this fall are worse than impractical. They are part of a larger trend of Harvard’s victim-blaming attitudes that hinder survivors’ pursuit of justice by instructing them “not to get raped.” Imagine that you have survived a rape. If you were to have your lived experience and trauma invalidated by a doctor, or an administrator tell you that your rape wasn’t violent enough for the Administrative Board to consider your case or that men in your culture are naturally gropey, how could you believe that your university is there to protect you? And after having received such messages, how could you ever turn to your university for help again?

By now, this story is a familiar one. Starting at Yale in 2010, students at many of Harvard’s peer institutions—Swarthmore, Amherst, Emerson, University of North Carolina, and Dartmouth, to name a few—have come forward to expose their experiences of sexual assault and university indifference. Survivors and activists are using Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination at universities, to advocate for better responses to campus sexual violence. Title IX recognizes that sexual assault violates a survivor’s right to a safe education and obligates universities to restore survivors’ safety and security, providing guidelines for sexual assault policies to aid universities in achieving that goal. Student activism around Title IX has been gaining traction at the national level: In January, President Obama issued a renewed call to action to end campus sexual violence. He also created the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

Unfortunately, Harvard has joined many other colleges in becoming increasingly legalistic in its response to student advocacy and outcry in an attempt to save face rather than prioritize survivors’ needs. Yes, Harvard has appointed two new Title IX coordinators and announced a working-group to review Harvard's policies and develop recommendations. But the University has all but shut out student and survivor participation and input when it comes to reviewing policy that is nominally being designed for our protection.

Because students and survivors are the ones who feel the impact of the systemic failures of the Harvard’s policy and programming around sexual violence, they have a crucial contribution to make in identifying the most important changes. Harvard should institute new policies that consistently support survivors and adhere to Title IX guidelines.

First, Harvard ought to standardize the informal process through which survivors can seek academic, residential, and extracurricular accommodations such as coursework extensions, housing changes, and no-contact orders. All administrators and students should be thoroughly trained about this process so that survivors enter conversations with administrators aware of what accommodations should be available to them. This will allow survivors to advocate for themselves in Harvard’s system. When the implementation of accommodations to protect the survivor requires disrupting existing residential, academic, or extracurricular situations, Harvard should place the brunt of the disruption on perpetrators, not survivors, as the Department of Education instructs. Now, with a policy that effectively means that, as a Crimson article from March 7, 2013, puts it, “victims of sexual assault must adjust their own schedules or change their housing if the perpetrator is allowed to remain on campus,” Harvard places an additional psychological and emotional burden on survivors, as the anonymous survivor’s story published yesterday in The Crimson evidences.

Second, the Ad Board must adhere to Title IX standards in order to provide an expedient decision-making process for survivors. Title IX’s 60-day timeline ensures that universities address student claims in a timely manner, instead of standing by until survivors or assailants graduate or until survivors give up after months of waiting.

Finally, university employees, including faculty, residential staff, and administrators, must undergo thorough training about Title IX. In many cases, survivors’ understanding of their rights under Title IX varies depending on the person to whom they happened to contact at the time of seeking support. If university employees are not trained thoroughly, they may provide inaccurate or inconsistent information to survivors about their rights and possible remedies. This training must extend beyond simple legal education. Currently, survivors of color and LGBTQ survivors are often further alienated by victim-blaming, racist, or homophobic remarks. Training for all administration and faculty to respect survivors’ diverse needs and experiences is essential.

Although rare, it is possible to spend four years on this campus without personal experience of the issue of sexual assault as a survivor, ally, or friend. This April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month will sharpen our attention on the issue as a student body. But each and every day of the year, not one of us can remain indifferent when the institution to which we belong–the school that we have so many other reasons to love—marginalizes the students most in need of its support. We can achieve a safer and more just Harvard. To realize this vision, Harvard must create an open, inclusive forum for change that stretches far beyond the month of April, one that welcomes the voices of those most affected by the policies and practices under review. Harvard must make supporting survivors mean more than a laundry list of legal compliance requirements to check off. And most of all, Harvard must treat its survivors not as liabilities, but as students.

Jessica R. Fournier ’17 lives in Thayer Hall. Emily M. Fox-Penner ’17 lives in Canaday Hall. Kate J. Sim ’14, a social studies and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator, lives in Quincy House. All three are members of Our Harvard Can Do Better, which offers information about sexual assault and Title IX on its resources website at

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