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December 8, 2002



By Elizabeth Mehren - WEnews correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS) --Safe Community Night is a well-established tradition each fall at Harvard. Freshmen file through a large room to learn the intricacies of registering their bikes, locking up their laptops and dealing with the annoyance of lost or stolen cell phones.

Most years, the portion of the evening devoted to "how to prevent rape" centers on advising female students not to get too drunk and to avoid wearing overly revealing clothes.

But with a controversial new sexual assault policy in place at Harvard, young women at the nation's oldest university have something else to worry about. In a surprise move, the faculty of Harvard College voted unanimously late last spring to require students bringing sexual assault charges to the school's disciplinary board to provide "sufficient corroborating evidence" of misconduct before the board will investigate.

The move by the governing body of the college (as the undergraduate portion of Harvard is referred to) reversed the school's longstanding policy of automatically looking into any charge of "peer to peer" sexual assault among undergraduates. Now, students who file sexual assault claims must supply a written statement along with "a list of witnesses and/or an account of the evidence they believe the [college disciplinary] board will be able to obtain in the course of an investigation."

Describing the new rule as a serious step backward, many students--and some faculty members--are up in arms. Posters decrying the change in protocol have popped up on campus, compliments of a student group called the Coalition against Sexual Violence. A member of that group who has not made her name public recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, asserting that the policy discriminates against sexual assault victims--usually women--by closing their avenues for grievance and by requiring corroboration that often would be impossible to obtain.

Wendy Murphy, a former sex crimes prosecutor who is a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, represents the student who filed the complaint. Murphy said she fears the regulation will make victims hesitate before proceeding with assault claims--and perhaps not go forward with them at all. Murphy also said she worried that the potential chilling effect at Harvard could spread to other campuses.

"To my knowledge, this is not only the only school that in practice mistreats women--retaliates against them, in fact--but Harvard is the first school to put in writing that the word of a woman is not good enough," Murphy said.

"Sexual assault often has no evidence," Murphy continued, explaining that while prosecuting sex crimes, she frequently had nothing more to rely on than the word of the victim. "The bottom line here is that any victim reading the requirements won't bother reporting."

Legal Complaint Charges Title IX Violation

Robert Mitchell, a spokesman for Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said the school does not comment on pending legal disputes. Harvard is cooperating with the Office for Civil Rights investigation and a decision is expected by February.

The Harvard student's complaint charges that the change in sexual assault policy violated the federal Title IX statute banning gender discrimination. In an August interview with the school's independent student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers said, "The general counsel's office tells me that whatever the merits of the issue, in their judgment the Title IX complaint does not have legal validity."

Harvard's insistence on "corroboration" comes as a new study has shown that fewer than 40 percent of colleges and universities are in full compliance with a federal law known as the Clery Act that requires colleges and universities to document statistics on rape and sexual assault. The Clery Act also mandates that colleges and universities must annually disclose these sex crime statistics as well as information about campus security policies.

A violation of the Clery Act can carry a fine of $25,000.

A breach of Title IX can jeopardize a school's federal funding. At present, the Harvard student's complaint only charges violation of Title IX. But Wendy Murphy said the complaint may be expanded at some point to include breach of the Clery Act.

A two-year study by the University of Cincinnati and a nonprofit group in Newton, Mass., called the Education Development Center, Inc. found that many colleges and universities did not provide students with information about preventing sexual assaults. The survey also concluded that many institutions failed to report all required crime data--and that many schools described problems concerning their investigations of sexual assault cases. The report faulted ignorance of the guidelines as much as indifference, noting that many schools are loath to change long-established practices pertaining to sexual assault investigations.

This disclosure came as scant surprise to Alysha Johnson, a junior at Harvard who described the school's education about sexual assault as "horrible."

Johnson, 20, said: "All they do is show you what to do after you have been assaulted. There is nothing about prevention. Nothing."

College Officials Did Not Consult Students before Changing Rape Policy

Johnson, a board member of Harvard's Coalition against Sexual Violence, said no student organization was consulted before the new policy was adopted.

Faculty members who helped draft the new regulation stressed that the corroboration requirement extends to all "peer dispute" questions on campus, not just sexual assault. Asking for additional verification would reduce the number of false complaints and would speed the process of resolution, some faculty members said.

Murphy countered that "it sets up the most absurd standard. If I'm just looking to retaliate against someone, I would make up a false corroboration, of course."

She said Harvard has never had an unusual number of sexual assault cases. In fact, Murphy said, just 21 cases of sexual assault were reported to university officials in the 2000-2001 academic year. Seven of those led to hearings. Only one was resolved in favor of the female accuser, Murphy said.

While Harvard awaits the Office for Civil Rights decision, students around the country are looking at how sexual assault is handled at their own schools. At nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a recent student newspaper editorial pointed out, "the rate of incidence of sexual assault is not well known . . . [and] . . . it is difficult for students to find out what to do if they experience sexual assault." By contrast, Georgetown University last fall became one of the few major institutions to implement a stalking policy. Georgetown also expanded its sexual misconduct policy to include "voyeurism, exposure and sexually explicit communications." Georgetown does not require corroborating evidence for a sexual assault complaint to be investigated.

Murphy maintains that the policy change at Harvard affects students in areas that extend beyond sexual assault because it chips away at "an equitable learning environment" for women students. She also charges that universities should set higher standards than those outside academia.

The practice of requiring corroboration for sexual assault cases "was on the books 30 years ago. Then it went away," Murphy said, because women mobilized and demanded change. "We were supposed to move forward. What is it that is so inadequate about the word of a woman in the year 2002?"

Elizabeth Mehren is the New England bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

For more information:

Security on Campus, Inc.: - http://www.campussafety.org

Harvard Magazine: - http://www.harvard-magazine.com/on-line/0702104.html



Copyright 2002 Women's Enews. All Rights Reserved.
For more Women's Enews, the daily news service for all women, visit www.womensenews.org.


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