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Feds Investigate Harvard's Response to Sexual Assault Complaint

Massachusetts Hall houses the offices of the University President.
Massachusetts Hall houses the offices of the University President. By Megan M. Ross
By Jamie D. Halper, Crimson Staff Writer

The federal government launched an investigation into Harvard in 2016 for allegedly failing to respond “promptly and equitably” to a complaint of sexual assault at the College, according to documents obtained by The Crimson.

The case is one of three ongoing federal inquiries into Harvard for alleged violations of anti-sex discrimination law Title IX. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights enforces the law, which applies to all educational institutions that receive federal funding.

The complaint that prompted the 2016 investigation into the College was originally filed with OCR in May 2015. In the complaint, the petitioning individual claims the College discriminated against him on the basis of sex due to the amount of time that had elapsed since Harvard had received the initial sexual assault complaint.

The specific date of the sexual assault claim was redacted from the documents provided by the Department of Education, along with many identifying details.

“While OCR does not require that an investigation be completed in 60 days, it is required that the resolution of sexual violence complaints be prompt and equitable,” the complainant wrote.“There have been very few attempts to make the process more swift and many instances in which the process was extended unnecessarily.”

It is not clear from the documents whether the petitioner was the alleged victim or alleged perpetrator in the incident in question.

OCR opened an investigation into his complaint in March 2016, and the office sent a letter to University President Drew G. Faust announcing the inquiry.

“The complainant alleged that the College discriminated against students on the basis of sex by failing to promptly and equitably respond to reports and/or incidents of sexual assault and harassment and, as a result, students were subjected to a sexually hostile environment,” the letter reads. “The OCR has determined that this allegation is appropriate for investigation.”

The Crimson reported the existence of this investigation in November, and later acquired documents specifying the allegations made in 2016 via a Freedom of Information Act request. The College also faces an open investigation into a widely-publicized 2014 complaint and another that OCR launched against the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2017.

Harvard has overhauled its Title IX administration and adopted a new University-wide sexual assault policy since the first investigation began in 2014. The University restructured its Title IX office last year, splitting its educational and support resources from its investigative arm, now called the Office for Dispute Resolution. The school has also implemented new sexual harassment training programs both online and in person for students and employees across the University.

The 2016 and 2017 OCR documents show that the federal office initially joined the 2017 complaint against FAS and GSAS with the earlier College cases, later splitting that complaint to consider it separately.

OCR contacted the complainant and Victoria L. Steinberg ’01, a lawyer connected to the 2017 case, to inform them that OCR was revising its scope of investigation and considering the claims independently. The documents did not make clear whom Steinberg represented in the case.

Colby Bruno, a lawyer with the Victim Rights Law Center, said it is common for complaints against a school to be combined initially with other pending investigations.

“If you have multiple complaints against one school, they will often join them to ensure that the same investigator has access to all of the information,” she said.

But, she said, if one case alleges additional types of violations, the complainant or OCR may seek to remove that case and consider it separately.

Like the 2016 complaint, the 2017 case raises concerns about promptness and equity in an investigation into a sexual assault allegation, though it also includes separate accusations against GSAS. That case also asks OCR to examine whether the school inadequately published grievance procedures, failed to appoint a Title IX coordinator to oversee University-wide efforts to comply with Title IX, and failed to publish notices of non-discrimination.

University spokesperson Tania DeLuzuriaga defended the University’s approach to handling complaints of sexual assault in a statement Monday.

“Harvard responds fairly and purposefully to allegations of sexual assault among its students, faculty, and staff. The University has, in recent years, invested a great deal in ensuring the community has resources to prevent and respond to instances of sexual assault,” she wrote.

She added, “These efforts include the adoption of a new Title IX Policy and Procedures in 2014, the creation of the Office for Dispute Resolution where trained professionals neutrally investigate allegations of policy violations, and increased training and resources to both prevent and respond to incidents.”

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