Harvard Law Revises Sexual Assault Policy to Settle Federal Charges


The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has announced a settlement with Harvard Law School over charges that the school’s sexual assault policies violated Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. Harvard University already started overhauling their sexual assault policy this summer, but the Department of Education said some of their proposed reforms don’t go far enough.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR)’s investigation found that the school had mishandled two sexual assault complaints from students. In a press release announcing the settlement, the agency says that in one case the Law School “took over a year to make its final determination and the complainant was not allowed to participate in this extended appeal process, which ultimately resulted in the reversal of the initial decision to dismiss the accused student and dismissal of the complainant’s complaint.”

Their investigation found, too, that the Law School generally afforded more rights to the alleged perpetrators of sexual assault than to the alleged victims, especially in hearings in front of the Administrative Board, which heard disciplinary cases. “Respondents were afforded the right to dispute Ad Board findings and to call and examine witnesses during the supplemental hearing process,” the investigators write, “while the Procedures did not afford any rights to complainants during this post-hearing process even though it could result in modified findings of fact and/or sanctions.”

The reaction on campus to the OCR settlement should be interesting. This summer, after Harvard Law first announced that it was beginning to overhaul its sexual assault policy, 28 professors at the school threw a fit, saying the new rules were “overwhelmingly stacked against the accused” and complaining that they “effectively destroyed the individual schools’ traditional authority to decide discipline for their own students” by creating a university-wide policy instead of allowing the Law School to decide on its own procedures and penalties.

Three Harvard Law students fired back with their own open letter, calling the Harvard professors complaints unfounded and a distraction “from an important goal—ending the scourge of sexual assault at our university.” The letter added, “Instead of condemning the Title IX Office, we should now focus our energies on improving the university’s policy—always with the twin goals of preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment, and of ensuring that justice and fairness are served.”

In a letter announcing the settlement—which you can read in full here—Joel J. Berner of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) outlines the steps that both Harvard as a whole and the Law School will have to undertake to be in compliance with federal law. Among other things, complainants will be specifically told that they have a right to file a Title IX complaint and pursue criminal charges; in the past, some students had been given the mistaken impression that they had to choose one or the other. The Education Department will also review all sexual assault complaints from 2012 to the present to make sure they were handled properly.

Harvard is one of dozens of schools being investigated for alleged Title IX violations. This settlement doesn’t resolve a separate Title IX complaint against Harvard College, the undergraduate institution, which is also accused of mishandling sexual assault allegations.

Image via NKCPhoto/Flickr

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