On Thursday, a group of Harvard students filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education detailing the issues with their institution’s sexual assault policies. One of the students in the group made national headlines earlier this week for publishing an open letter to Harvard that alleged university officials didn’t take her sexual assault case seriously, spurring her eventual diagnosis with depression.
The federal complaint includes personal testimonials from the group of students who filed it, as well as summaries of student interviews conducted by Our Harvard Can Do Better, a sexual assault prevention group on campus. Students reported that they had difficulty navigating the administration’s process for dealing with sexual assault reports. Some of them received conflicting information about their options, and others encountered insensitive responses from administrators.
For instance, the complaint states that one Harvard student, who is a woman of color, was told that “It’s in your culture that men are gropey” after she tried to report her sexual assault.
Since the anonymous open letter was published in Harvard’s student newspaper earlier this week, the community has quickly responded to the reignited controversy over sexual assault — an issue that the institution has been grappling with for several years by now. The school’s Undergraduate Council formed a task force to advocate for changes to the sexual assault policy. The Council’s president said he was “taken aback” and “disturbed” by the allegations in the letter, which included assertions that the victim of sexual assault was dissuaded from pursuing a case and was forced to continue living in the same dorm as her assailant.
And Harvard officials soon confirmed that they will support that task force. “Sexual harassment and sexual assault can never be tolerated,” Harvard’s dean of student life wrote in a letter to the community that was obtained by ABC News. “This op-ed has sparked discussions across the community. As we enhance and refine our policies and procedures, we also need constructive engagement with our community, especially the student community.”
As the Huffington Post reports, Harvard is the only Ivy League university that doesn’t use the “affirmative consent” standard in its sexual assault policy. Affirmative consent requires both sexual partners to say “yes” in order for their subsequent encounter to be considered consensual, rather than requiring the victim to prove that they said “no.” But Harvard’s decades-old policy has a narrow definition of “indecent assault and battery” that must involve “unwanted touching or fondling of a sexual nature that is accompanied by physical force or threat of bodily injury.” Student activists have been fighting to change this language to no avail so far.
Harvard isn’t the only institution grappling with these issues. Over the past year, the growing campus activism to push for better sexual assault policies has sparked national headlines. The college sexual assault crisis spurred President Obama to announce the creation of a new federal task force specifically focused on combating rape at colleges and universities.
These student activists have already impacted public opinion. Just 12 percent of Americans think that higher education institutions are doing a good job responding to sexual assault allegations.