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When the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found Harvard Law School in violation of anti-sex discrimination law Title IX in late 2014, it suggested a number of revisions to the Law School and University’s process for investigating sexual assault.
Among those recommendations, the federal agency—abbreviated to OCR—identified one particular area for improvement: Harvard needed to specify a clear timeline for sexual assault and harassment investigations as well as disciplinary proceedings afterwards.
“OCR’s expectation is that the 60-day timeframe for investigations should include the process of imposing sanctions against perpetrators and providing remedies for the complainant and school community,” the resolution letter to the Law School reads.
The 60-day time frame has been the federal standard in Title IX investigations in recent years. In its 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, OCR wrote that a typical investigation takes 60 days. Later, OCR’s 2014 “Frequently Asked Questions” document clarified that some investigations may take longer depending on a case’s complexity.
But Harvard’s centralized office for investigating cases of sexual assault and harassment, the Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution, regularly takes more time than OCR expects—sometimes double or close to triple the recommended 60 days—to complete its investigations. For cases involving students, investigations often last more than four months from the opening of an investigation to final disciplinary rulings and sanctions—well beyond the 60-day window that the federal agency recommends for the entire process.
Investigations into cases involving a student complainant in the 2014-2015 academic year took, on average, more than five months to complete, according to Mia Karvonides, Harvard’s Title IX Officer. Thus far in the 2015-2016 school year, ODR investigations have, on average, lasted for almost four months, Karvonides said. Of the 40 cases ODR has heard since it opened in September 2014, 22 have involved student complainants, according to Karvonides.
Under the University’s central Title IX procedures, investigation findings are handed off to school disciplinary bodies after a ruling. Karvonides’s statistics do not include the time it takes for a school’s disciplinary body to determine appropriate sanctions.
The average time frame for ODR investigations also calls into question the office’s adherence to its own predictions. Harvard’s University-wide procedures for sexual harassment complaints involving students state that investigations will finish “ordinarily within six weeks of receipt of the complaint.”
In practice, though, Karvonides said meeting that timeline often proves more complicated. Between the desire for a thorough investigation and the more quotidian realities of interviewing busy college students, Karvonides said it is often unrealistic to expect a 60-day timeline.
“When you think about the sexual assault cases in particular, I ask anyone to please point me to what other forum has been able to do a thorough and a fair—one having parity, having sensitivity—investigation of sexual assault and do it in in anything close to a 60-day time frame,” Karvonides said.
Karvonides said she hopes that ODR will be able to complete its investigations more quickly in the future and pointed to the progress the office has already made.
"Every day, I’m looking at ways at how we can move these along more quickly. The challenge is moving it along more quickly but maintaining that same quality and the sensitivity,” she said.
In one case, the investigation began in mid-December, 2014 and was not completed until late May 2015, according to case documents obtained by The Crimson. Broken up by two school vacations, the investigation still lasted several months beyond the timelines both the federal government and the University recommend. Ultimately resulting in a finding of violation against the respondent of Harvard’s sexual harassment and assault policy, the case illustrates how sexual assault investigations at Harvard pan out.
"There’s a balance of being sensitive and thorough and trying to be as timely as possible in completing this process," Karvonides said of ODR investigations generally.
When Karvonides received the initial complaint in mid-December, she assigned a Boston-area attorney that Harvard contracted, to review the case, according to the case documents.
After the attorney had read the complaint and interviewed the complainant about a week and a half after the complaint was filed,the attorney decided to begin an investigation, setting into motion a process that would last for the next several months. In early January, the attorney notified the respondent of the complaint and the investigation; five days later the respondent submitted a response.
From there, the investigation moved along predictably. After interviewing the complainant again and then interviewing the respondent in late January, the investigator talked to a number of witnesses in February and March of 2015. The attorney interviewed both the complainant and respondent again in mid-March, and then interviewed the respondent another time about a week and a half later.
But it was not until seven weeks later in early May—five months after the complainant initially filed a complaint—that the investigator sent both the complainant and respondent a draft of the final report in the case. About a week later, each party submitted a response to the draft report. And, finally, in late May 2015, ODR made its ultimate ruling: the respondent had violated Harvard’s sexual harassment and assault policy.
“The Investigator finds, based on a preponderance of the evidence, that Respondent engaged in unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature toward Complainant,” the report reads.
In 2014, OCR launched an investigation into the College’s compliance with Title IX. As part of that investigation, OCR attorneys visited campus last spring. The investigation is ongoing. A lawsuit filed by a recent graduate claiming the College mishandled her sexual harassment case also remains ongoing.
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