UPDATED: November 12, 2015, at 1:57 p.m.
Last month, the University released a “Frequently Asked Questions” document that sought to explain and clarify various aspects of the new sexual harassment policy; the document also announced the designation of the Bureau of Study Counsel and the College Office of BGLTQ Student Life, in addition to student peer counseling groups, as confidential resources that will not disclose reports of sexual harassment to a Title IX coordinator without the student’s permission, unless legally compelled. It is still possible that staff members of either of these two organizations may be required to share information in certain circumstances.
The announcement comes as a victory for those who have criticized Harvard for a lack of confidential counseling services for survivors of sexual assault. Before the change in policy, the Bureau of Study Counsel could pass on reports of sexual assault to Harvard’s Title IX coordinator. In many cases, students who are sexually assaulted are fearful or hesitant to turn to such resources; it is our hope that the added confidential resources will help increase the likelihood that the victims of harassment or assault seek help and support.
In the seven weeks since the publication of the alarming results of the sexual conduct climate survey in September, Harvard has taken several important steps to reorganize its prevention and counseling resources. And rightly so: The survey uncovered a series of deeply distressing numbers. The statistics are particularly alarming for female undergraduate students identifying as lesbian, gay, asexual, questioning, or not listed, 17.9 percent of whom reported experiencing nonconsensual contact involving physical force or incapacitation, compared to 12 percent of their straight female undergraduate peers. It is thus particularly commendable that the BGLTQ office can now guarantee confidentiality. Experience shows that many BGLTQ students are less likely to seek needed help when they lack access to staff specifically trained to advise on BGLTQ issues.
However, we still have reservations about the Bureau of Study Counsel—a key mental health resource—being beholden to the College’s jurisdiction. It was announced last spring that the BSC would move under the purview of the College from the control of University Health Services; correspondingly, the BSC is now governed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, rather than the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Under the latter, student information cannot be passed to faculty or administrators without the student’s written permission; on the other hand FERPA allows for this information can be shared under a “strict need-to-know basis.” Though an FAS spokesperson has declared that the College would not use this information for disciplinary purposes, the BSC’s move continues to pose problems of confidentiality for conversations between students and BSC advisers, especially for topics as sensitive as sexual assault.
It is clear in viewing the “Frequently Asked Question” document that the University is making a concerted effort to improve its sexual assault policies; moreover, the changes delineated represent a willingness to listen to student feedback that is admirable. We hope that this particular set of changes marks a step toward a situation where students recovering from sexual assault feel comfortable turning to Harvard as a source of counsel and support.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: November 12, 2015
An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated the legal status of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. In fact, OSAPR is a legally privileged resource.
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