Student activists rallied in Harvard Yard and presented a letter to University President Drew G. Faust on Friday, calling on federal officials and Harvard administrators to commit to enforcing anti-sex discrimination law Title IX.
Members of Our Harvard Can Do Better and the Law School’s Harassment Assault Law-Student Team organized the rally as part of a national day of action to defend Title IX, which prescribes how educational institutions respond to sexual assault complaints. Some activists fear that Trump administration may relax the enforcement of the law.
Students gathered in the snow and sleet Friday afternoon to march around the Yard, their mouths covered with red tape to communicate how students who suffer sexual assault have been silenced. They concluded the demonstration by delivering a letter to Faust’s office in Massachusetts Hall that outlines a set of “best practices” for Title IX enforcement.
The letter—which was organized by No Red Tape at Columbia University and signed by anti-sexual assault advocacy student groups and organizations across the country—addresses U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. It implores Sessions and DeVos to uphold Title IX and adhere to a set of “best practices” for sexual assault prevention and response.
“Because it is our collective responsibility to work toward creating communities that will support survivors of violence, we urge you to strongly enforce Title IX, the federal law that outlaws sex discrimination in education, during your time in office,” the letter reads.
DeVos’s narrow confirmation in the Senate as Secretary of Education stirred concerns among campus Title IX activists after she declined to commit to enforcing the law during a hearing.
Not only do the activists aim to put pressure on the federal officials with the letter, but Our Harvard Can Do Better member Jessica R. Fournier ’17 said that the activists aim to put pressure on universities to follow the law no matter what happens in Washington.
“The purpose of the letter is two-fold: it’s both survivor activist organizations talking to the federal government, but then also these are demands for our university as well,” Fournier said. “Whatever happens at the federal level, Harvard still has a responsibility to uphold Title IX and protect their students.”
Central administrators maintain that any changes DeVos makes to Title IX enforcement at the federal level will not alter the University’s efforts to prevent sexual assault or adjudicate complaints. After DeVos’s confirmation, acting Title IX Officer Bill D. McCants said in an interview he is “confident this will not mean a course change for Harvard at all.”
Harvard’s compliance with Title IX has come under repeated federal scrutiny. The federal government continues to investigate the College’s response to sexual assault, and a recent graduate is suing the University in federal court for allegedly mishandling her sexual assault complaint.
In addition to enforcement issues at the federal level, activists called on the University to adopt the “best practices” outlined in the letter. These include implementing mandatory annual trainings, providing academic and housing accommodations to students who have been sexually assaulted, and requiring cultural competency training for all staff members involved in handling Title IX complaints.
Some of Harvard’s schools have adopted several of these measures, such as annual trainings, but progress on sexual assault prevention efforts across the University remains uneven.
In an emailed statement, University spokesperson Melodie L. Jackson wrote that Harvard has taken several steps to address sexual assault, including disseminating brochures, creating web portals for training and resources, and a resource guide prepared by the Title IX Office.
“Over the past several years, Harvard has been at the forefront of efforts to more effectively prevent sexual assault and other forms of sexual harassment, and to respond when it does occur,” Jackson wrote.
But members of Our Harvard Can Do Better hope that the University will do more to address sexual assault on campus and serve as an example for other schools.
“There’s really no university in the nation that’s doing it right,” said Amelia Y. Goldberg ’19, a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better. “This is a moment for Harvard to do it right for protections on sexual violence.”
—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.