Four Harvard Law School students contend that the school did not take meaningful action to address a series of racist and sexist messages sent anonymously to the students after an investigation failed to determine the messages’ origins.
The text and email messages — which included racist taunts and insults about female students’ physical appearances — began in December 2018 and were sent to a small group of first-year law students, some of whom are black. After reaching out to faculty members and filing police reports, the students took their case to administrators who they say did not adequately investigate and address the messages.
Law School student Mohamed “Mo” T. Light received the first message in early December, which included statements contending he had only been accepted to the Law School “because of affirmative action.”
“My first initial reaction was this is like a gut punch,” Light said.
Christina E. Volcy, another Law School student, received an anonymous message in February and shortly after reached out to faculty members who she said quickly responded to her concerns. In March, however, Volcy reached out to the Law School’s Dean of Students Marcia L. Sells, who did not respond to her initial message.
“We've been left aghast at how just unfeeling and just inappropriate their response to our concern has been,” Volcy said.
Volcy later emailed Sells again with a fellow classmate who received one of the messages and was able to set up a meeting with the dean, but they say the school’s subsequent investigation did not sufficiently address the incident.
Sells wrote in an emailed statement Thursday night that the Law School worked with Harvard University Police Department and an outside law firm to investigate the messages, but were unable to determine who sent them.
“We have repeatedly expressed to our students how deeply we regret the hurt these messages caused, and we condemned and continue to condemn in the strongest terms any communication or action that is intended to demean people,” Sells wrote. “Members of the HLS community are committed to fostering an environment of mutual respect and support; these messages transgress our values and Community Principles.”
“We will continue to work to reinforce these values and to promote a community in which all are supported and respected,” she added.
HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano declined to comment on the department’s involvement and declined to provide the students’ police reports.
Following the students’ first meeting with Sells in March, she followed up in April with an email to the students informing them that the school had employed Shaun Donnelly from the law firm Hogan Lovells to independently investigate the messages.
Light, Volcy, and Rooney said they and the fourth student all met with Donnelly in April, but did not hear back from him or Sells until after the final exam period.
On June 6, Rooney and Volcy emailed Sells to follow-up on the investigation.
“As you know, this has been a difficult time for everyone who received messages, and we all have spent many hours mulling over these messages, fully aware that we deserved to use that time to devote to our studies,” they wrote. “That is to say again that this has greatly impacted our first year at HLS, and we would like to be apprised of the resolution as soon as possible, so as to enter into our internships and 2L year unburdened by this harassment.”
Sells did not respond until June 26, after all four students emailed Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 and asked him for an update on the investigation. In her email, Sells apologized for her delayed response and said the investigation had been completed.
On June 29, Sells followed up with an email to the students’ section and informed them that the investigation was inconclusive.
“We condemn in the strongest terms these messages and all communications that are intended to demean people. Such messages transgress our Community Principles, which commit every student, faculty and staff member to, among other things, mutual respect,” Sells wrote. “Harvard Law School engaged HUPD and an outside law firm to thoroughly investigate these anonymous messages. Unfortunately, we were not able to establish the sender(s).”
The students said they believed they knew who had sent the messages, but did not provide the name of the suspected sender.
In her statement, Sells said the Law School will continue to “reinforce” values of “mutual respect and support” that are part of the school’s Community Principles.
“We have repeatedly expressed to our students how deeply we regret the hurt these messages caused, and we condemned and continue to condemn in the strongest terms any communication or action that is intended to demean people,” Sells said.
The Harvard Black Law Students Association also posted a statement to its website Friday criticizing the Law School’s response to the messages.
“Harvard University, and specifically, Harvard Law School, asserts itself as a committed leader to diversity, inclusion, and justice; however, Harvard woefully failed to act and protect the students of Section 7,” they wrote.
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an emailed statement Friday that Law School administrators “condemn” the anonymous messages and reiterated that the school worked “extensively” to investigate them.
“We care deeply about the four students who each received these demeaning messages,” Neal wrote. “Sadly, the realities of technology sometimes permit those who commit such acts to evade detection, and we are disappointed that we were unable to identify who is responsible despite our efforts along multiple fronts.”
“We understand why the four students who each received a message wish to see the fruits of our efforts, and we wish that we could do more to answer their questions,” he added.