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Clubs, Classes, Houses: When Survivors of Sexual Assault Can’t Avoid Their Assaulters

A Broken System

By Emily N. Dial
By Rachael A. Dziaba, Crimson Opinion Writer
Rachael A. Dziaba ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House and an organizer for the Harvxrd Feminist Coalition, formerly known as the Harvard Feminist Coalition.

Imagine this: You are the president of a Harvard student organization, and a member approaches you after being assaulted by someone else in the club. They don’t want to go to Title IX, but they don’t want to see the person who had harmed them.

You know they’re telling the truth. You want to ensure they can remain in the club. But if they don’t want to go to Title IX — or they do and their investigation drags on — there’s little you can do.

Many student leaders at Harvard have faced this situation or something like it. Without a finding from an official investigation, universities cannot punish or sanction students under federal Title IX rules. This can limit the kinds of supportive measures available to students who have experienced harm — restricting an accused student’s engagement with a club, for example, could constitute a punishment.

A similar dynamic plays out in Houses, another setting where students might have to share space with those who have caused them harm. Here, again, without a finding of fault, the supportive measures available are limited. If both parties live in a certain House, the survivor would generally have to transfer, or both would stay there.

No student should have to share space with their harasser or assaulter. But while the Title IX investigation process remains so broken, often, there are only two options for students: Stay and risk their well-being or leave.

“The health, safety, and wellbeing of our students remains a top priority and a core commitment of the Harvard College experience,” wrote a Harvard spokesperson in response to a request for comment.

“We are guided by clear policies and students are strongly encouraged to access the wide array of services that support those policies,” the spokesperson added.

Is that true? To understand these dynamics, I spoke with students who have led student organizations through these situations — as well as those who have faced them personally.

‘I Want Us To Be Able To Keep Each Other Safe.’

When student organizations respond to cases of harassment or assault, they face a slew of restrictions.

According to the Recognized Student Organization Resource Guide, in cases of sexual misconduct, student organizations are unable to exclude members without first consulting the College Title IX office. Additionally, federal regulations require that supportive measures granted before a Title IX investigation reaches a resolution are not punitive or disciplinary.

But Title IX investigations can take months or years, and most survivors never initiate them in the first place for a host of reasons. Without the clarity of an official finding, it falls to many student leaders to figure out how to provide members with support. In turn, many students are left to choose between ending their involvement with the organization or regularly engaging with the person who harmed them.

In short, student organization’s hands are tied, and survivors pay for it.

“Student organizations are very limited in what we can do in response to allegations, even if we have clear and convincing evidence that misuse of power occurred,” a student leader of a large organization wrote.

“I wish there was more codified support from the University,” a former president of a Harvard undergraduate cultural group told me. “A lot of this comes down to social leaders.”

One former student organization president told me about a situation where she experienced these shortcomings firsthand. During her tenure, she was approached by an individual who said a board member had assaulted them but did not want to file a Title IX report. She was told by her adviser that she couldn’t remove someone from the board without citing the club’s constitution, but it contained no language regarding removal.

As a result, she was unable to take any action against the accused board member, though she later pushed to add language that would allow the club’s leaders to address these problems in the future.

The limitations this president faced are not unique. Two of the organizations whose constitutions I reviewed lacked a misconduct policy in their constitution. Another organization, I learned, doesn’t have a constitution at all.

In comparison, organizations with sufficient procedures for sexual harassment and assault in their bylaws give their leaders greater latitude to navigate these tricky situations and take action to support survivors.

The Institute of Politics, for example, has extensive policies about misconduct contained in a code of conduct that all members of its leadership board are required to sign. Violations of that code can result in suspension or even termination from leadership after an internal investigation, sometimes involving IOP staff.

As a result, explained Amen H. Gashaw ’24, who served as president of the IOP last year, “It’s very rare that we ever have to go to Title IX.” Gashaw called this fortunate, noting that Title IX “isn’t always the most proactive when it comes to working with students to make them feel comfortable.”

Still, in her experience working with Harvard’s administration to address misconduct, she has found it to have “a tendency toward being slower than faster, and being less decisive in action than more decisive.”

Harvard Model Congress, like the IOP, has a lengthy document laying out its sexual harassment policies. Because it defines membership in HMC as solely participation in the Boston conference and characterizes everything else as a privilege, HMC can remove students from leadership or bar them from travel and other activities if they are found in violation of the policy without having to consult Title IX.

Too often, though, students face these situations in organizations without policies as strong as those of HMC or the IOP, denying students who have experienced sexual harm equal access to the extracurriculars that are such a meaningful part of the Harvard experience.

Solving this doesn’t mean compromising due process entirely. But while Title IX investigations remain so ineffective, policies — or a lack thereof — that prevent club leaders from doing their due diligence and taking action protect those who have committed harassment or assault rather than those who have experienced it.

Will M. Sutton ’23, a former activist with the feminist advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better (now known as Harvxrd Feminist Coalition, for which I’m an organizer), put it best: “I want us to be able to keep each other safe.”

No Contact Orders: A Flawed Alternative

No contact orders, which prohibit contact between parties, are intended to provide students a measure of relief without an official Title IX finding. In reality, they have a host of issues — and, it turns out, can burden students who have experienced harm just as much as those who have perpetrated it.

These orders are relatively common. Maha Ibrahim, a Title IX attorney, told me that one of the first things most universities offer to survivors is a no contact order.

According to the Office of Gender Equity’s website, these documents are typically mutual, prohibiting either student from initiating direct or indirect communication with the other.

However, in the context of student organization work, communication is in some cases still allowed.

An undergraduate who has a no contact order with someone in her same organization described the difficulties with enforcing her order. In theory, the rule is that contact within the context of a student organization must be limited only to what is necessary for their work for that organization.

In practice, those lines aren’t so clean.

She felt the person she had a no contact order against was pushing the order’s boundaries, speaking to her more often than necessary and coming too close to her physically. For those reasons, the undergraduate ultimately obtained a restraining order — a stronger option than a no contact order, but often an inaccessible one, since many students don’t have access to lawyers and court proceedings are public.

Unlike many restraining orders, no contact orders can also lack clauses requiring the parties keep a certain distance apart, meaning both parties can remain in the same House or courses.

Another undergraduate I spoke with went to the Title IX office after an incident with a member of their House staff. In response, they obtained a no contact order, and the staff member was moved from their House temporarily but returned after a week.

“Lately, I’ve been seeing him around a lot more. And I recognize that I don’t want to go to the dining hall for breakfast because I know that it’ll just be him and myself there,” they said.

They were offered swipe access to another dining hall, they said, but it was inconvenient to be isolated from their friends and the House community. They were told that he couldn’t be moved out of their House because the university couldn’t apply rules unevenly. And because their no contact order is mutual, they must avoid him within the House as much as he must avoid them.

“There are no rules that apply to him that don’t apply to me. There’s no extra protection for me or extra rules against him as the person who did this,” they said.

This is how no contact orders fall short: Often, those who obtain them still have to navigate the spaces as the person who harmed them — with added restrictions on their own conduct too.

And even when perpetrators violate a no contact order, the University does not always take action. After Griffin Wong ’24 obtained a no contact order following a bullying situation, the other student clearly violated it by calling him on the phone.

But when Wong, a former Crimson Sports Chair, reached out to his resident dean and a dean from the Office of Academic Integrity and Student Conduct, he told me he received no response.

“I think it’s a bad precedent to set for survivors who do need the protection,” he said. “That’s a very dangerous signal.”

And, although Wong was told that because of the no contact order both he and the other student would have to move out of Lowell House, where they were housed as freshmen during Covid, only he ended up having to move. The other student was allowed to stay.

“That felt like a betrayal on the part of the administration,” he said.

One-Way Forward

While the problems with the formal Title IX investigation process remain, students deserve support that allows them to remain in the Houses and clubs they enjoy.

Fortunately, under recent updates to Title IX guidelines by the Biden administration, universities are now explicitly able to offer one-way no contact orders, eliminating the burdens that two-way orders can put on survivors.

Still, one-way or not, the University has a responsibility to more stringently enforce no contact orders and provide solutions for settings — whether classes, student organizations, or Houses — where total separation isn’t provided.

Above all, supportive measures must be tailored to individual students. Advocates have long encouraged schools to get creative in the measures they offer. The new Biden regulations make room for schools to do exactly that.

Due process matters. But the many issues with the formal Title IX process leave survivors to suffer without adequate support. Students shouldn’t have to trade the clubs and Houses they love for safety and peace of mind.

Rachael A. Dziaba ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House and an organizer for the Harvxrd Feminist Coalition, formerly known as the Harvard Feminist Coalition. Read her column “A Broken System” here.

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