On Tuesday, Harvard University and its law school announced a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) over allegations that its sexual harassment and sexual assault policies violated Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits gender discrimination at colleges that receive federal funding.
In its letter announcing its findings, the OCR found that Harvard Law School failed to provide a “prompt and equitable response to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” falling out of compliance with Title IX. There were two sexual assault cases filed with Harvard Law School between 2005 and the present, and in one, school officials took more than a year to make a final determination, in the end reversing a decision to dismiss the accused student and instead dismissing the complaint. The school also gave accused students the opportunity to call and question witnesses during the supplemental hearing process, something that wasn’t afforded to the accusers.
The law school used a “clear and convincing” evidence standard in its grievance procedures, which violates Title IX. The OCR also found that those who implemented the harassment and assault policies at the law school did not get adequate training.
The OCR also looked the university’s new sexual harassment and assault policies, which it implemented in July. It found that they still fail to meet the requirements of Title IX for a variety of reasons, including that fact that they don’t make it clear that a student has the right to end the informal process and bring a formal one at any time, that mediation is prohibited in these cases, that students who report harassment won’t have to resolve it directly with the accused, or that a complainant has the right to proceed with both a criminal investigation and a Title IX investigation. The new policies also don’t include a statement saying that the university will respond to incidents even without the filing of a complaint or report nor do they include explicit documentation protocols for its responses to harassment and assault complaints.
Under Harvard’s resolution agreement with the OCR, the school has agreed to address all of these concerns. A separate Title IX investigation of Harvard College, the undergraduate school, is still ongoing, one of the 92 higher education institutions that are under investigation by the OCR for violations.
The resolution comes after Harvard students filed a federal complaint in April. The filing included personal testimonials from students who said they had difficulty navigating the process for reporting sexual assault, including a woman of color who said she was told “It’s in your culture that men are gropey” after she tried to report. It also came after an anonymous student published an open letter earlier that month alleging that school officials discouraged her from bringing charges against her assailant because her assault didn’t fit into its narrow definition. Because she couldn’t get an official investigation, she had to continue living in the same dorm as him. According to Department of Education data, there were 31 reports of forcible sex offenses at Harvard in 2010, 21 in 2011, and 31 in 2012.
The university is the only Ivy League institution that doesn’t use the “affirmative consent” standard in its sexual assault policies, which requires both partners to say yes in order for an encounter to be consensual, rather than proving that a victim said no. Its previous, decades-old policy narrowly defined assault as one that must involve “unwanted touching or fondling of a sexual nature that is accompanied by physical force or threat of bodily injury.” Students have long been fighting to change the policies.
Harvard isn’t the only home to activism around campus sexual assault, however. There has been a growing movement on campuses this year to push for better sexual assault policies. President Obama even announced a new federal task force focused specifically on the issue of college rape.