Two Harvard students recently filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) about the university’s sexual-assault policies. According to the complaint, Harvard College — the university's undergraduate school — violated Title IX of the Civil Rights Act by providing victims with conflicting and incorrect information about available accommodations, denying them protections from their alleged assailants, blaming victims for the assaults and discouraging them from pursuing disciplinary action.
Although two individuals filed the complaint, testimonials from another 10 sexual-assault victims — who remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by the university —are also outlined in the document. Among the charges is a complaint that the university failed to provide written notification of the outcome of the adjudication process, together with grievances related to punishments imposed by the administration and the accommodations provided for victims.
For example, despite successfully obtaining a no-contact order against her assailant, one victim was forced to live in the same residential building as her attacker. Another victim was disappointed by the failure of the university to explain its one-semester suspension of her attacker, a penalty the victim felt was too lenient.
The complaint seeks to compel changes in the way Harvard handles complaints of sexual assault, including a standardized process for informal accommodations and training for all administrators. It also recommends that Harvard adopt a policy of affirmative consent requiring college students obtain explicit consent before engaging in sexual activity and a higher burden of proof standard for the adjudicative process.
Many colleges and universities in the U.S. are facing similar scrutiny amid a surge in complaints alleging institutional mishandling of sexual assault cases. While increased public pressure alone may warrant a review of institutional policies, those seeking Title IV financial aid also face larger obligations with the recent passage of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (Campus SaVE Act) enacted as part of the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act.
The Campus SaVE Act requires institutions of higher education to develop and communicate their policies on dating violence, sexual assault, stalking and domestic violence, and increases the types of crimes that must be disclosed under the Clery Act. Colleges and universities should ensure their policies and procedures are up to date and their employees understand their obligations under the law.