UPDATED: February 18, 2016, at 2:15 a.m.
A recent Harvard College graduate filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, charging that College and University administrators mishandled a response to her sexual harassment case and allowed an alleged perpetrator to live in Cabot House with her.
The federal suit—which was filed in Massachusetts District Court on Tuesday—charts a sexual harassment complaint Alyssa R. Leader ’15 filed with Harvard in 2015 against a male College student after what the suit describes as repeated threatening and abusive sexual encounters. The suit alleges that the student, referred to as “John Doe 1,” sexually abused Leader during a “dating relationship” and then subsequently intimidated and harassed her in Cabot House after the relationship ended.
Requesting punitive damages for Harvard and compensation, Leader alleges in the lawsuit that Harvard administrators failed to follow federal guidance on university sexual harassment investigations. In particular, the suit argues that Harvard’s handling of the case violated anti-sex discrimination law Title IX and failed to protect her against retaliation.
“The acts and failures to act perpetrated against Plaintiff amounted to unlawful sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender,” the suit charges against the University. “Defendants acted with deliberate indifference in deviating significantly from the standard of care outlined by the [Department of Education].”
In an emailed statement, Harvard spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga wrote that Harvard does not comment on pending litigation.
After Leader reported sexual harassment to several administrators, who later opened a formal investigation, she requested that they remove Doe from Cabot during the course of the investigation. According to the suit, administrators did not remove Doe from Cabot until Leader had secured a restraining order from an outside court.
Alex S. Zalkin, the California attorney representing Leader, said he and Leader first began working on filing the suit about a month ago. Leader reached out to Zalkin, who works at a firm that specializes in sexual abuse law, he said.
The suit traces several interactions Leader said she had with University administrators regarding sexual harassment over the course of about two years. According to the suit, Leader first reported Doe’s conduct to Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in spring 2013, and again in September 2014. On Nov. 6, 2014, the suit states, Leader met with Cabot Resident Dean Tiffanie L. Ting and claimed that Doe had sexually harassed her in Cabot dining hall and cafe, among other places. The suit alleges that Ting discouraged Leader from filing a formal complaint and said Doe could not be moved from Cabot. Ting could not be reached for comment.
“I think that the biggest takeaway from the complaint is that she recorded multiple times not only that she was sexually assaulted, but that there was retaliatory and ongoing harassment from the perpetrator and his friends,” Zalkin said. “Notwithstanding, Harvard did nothing to protect her and make her feel safe on campus, which is basically the whole purpose of Title IX.”
In an emailed statement, Rakesh Khurana, the Dean of the College and a Cabot House master, wrote that he could not comment on pending litigation. Still, he wrote that Harvard administrators “take seriously and swiftly respond to all allegations of sexual assault and harassment.”
“My colleagues and I in the College will continue our efforts to educate our community about the issue of sexual assault, to better prevent it, and to provide the best resources for those who experience it,” he wrote.
Leader reported Doe to the Office of Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution in February 2015, prompting a formal investigation, and updated ODR investigators on Doe’s alleged retaliatory conduct—including threatening comments and increased presence at Leader’s workplace, Cabot Cafe—according to the suit. She also reported sexual assault to the Harvard University Police Department in April.
The suit claims that, on advice from Miller, the College’s Title IX coordinator, ODR, and OSAPR, Leader did not try to secure contact restrictions that could have prevented alleged retaliation against the plaintiff. It also alleges that the defendants—listed as the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers—did not provide Leader with adequate information about her legal rights, including her option to pursue a restraining order. When Leader independently obtained a restraining order against Doe on April 27, 2015, College administrators moved Doe to another residential building, according to the suit.
After both Leader and Doe graduated in 2015, the ODR found Doe “Not Responsible” on all claims of rape, assault, abuse, and retaliation; Leader unsuccessfully appealed the finding, according to the suit. The College's Administrative Board then reviewed the results of the investigation, and voted for a sanction of “Scratch,” a ruling that indicates no wrongdoing had occurred.
Jessica R. Fournier ’17, an organizer for anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, said Leader has the full support of the group and called the suit “really tragic and horrifying, but certainly not unique.”
“I think Harvard would like to believe and would like to tell the community at large that these issues have been solved, so they've created a new policy and had all these task forces,” she said. “I think that Alyssa's case points very clearly to the fact that that is not true; this is still ongoing; this is still systemic.”
Zalkin, one of Leader’s lawyers, said his team held a press conference on Wednesday at the Sheraton Commander Hotel and anticipates heavy press attention to the case given recent criticisms of Harvard’s handling of sexual assault.
A federal investigation into Harvard College’s compliance with anti-sex discrimination law Title IX remains ongoing. In July 2014, Harvard unveiled a new approach for handling cases of alleged sexual harassment, creating a centralized, investigatory office. And in December 2014, the federal government found Harvard Law School in violation of Title IX.
—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham contributed to the reporting of this story.