Photo by Patricia McDonnell
You might think that the nation's
oldest and arguably most prestigious university--
Harvard-- would have a policy on sexual assault in
place that lesser schools might emulate. You would
In fact, the rules for bringing a
formal charge of rape by another student are the subject
of heated controversy on the Cambridge campus, and
have been since the faculty voted for the new wording
of the rules last spring. Today, almost a year later,
students are confused over what kind of corroboration
the university requires to institute an investigation,
and posters decrying the policy change have sprung
up around campus. The school has hired a coordinator
to develop preventive programs and support services
for sexual assault victims; a special ad hoc committee
of faculty and students is looking into the issue
of how to prevent sexual assault on campus. And a
student who remains anonymous has filed a complaint
with the Department of Education’s (DOE) Office
of Civil Rights, charging that the policy is a violation
IX, the federal statute that bars gender discrimination
in education. A ruling is expected before the summer.
What caused the uproar is a seemingly
subtle change in the wording in the student handbook,
requiring "independent corroborating evidence"
that an assault has occurred.
Does this mean a simple "I
was raped isn’t sufficient? That's certainly
what it sounds like, say some students. "We already
had a system where the victims [of sexual assault]
feel unsupported and that they can't come forward,"
says junior Alisha Johnson, a board member of the
Coalition against Sexual Violence, a student group
that sprang up in 1998 after two highly publicized
rapes on campus. "This just adds to the environment
where you feel you are not going to be believed. This
will cause a lot fewer victims to come forward."
Few ever do, says sexual assault
expert Professor Mary Koss of the University of Arizona.
Koss, who has extensively studied the incidence of
rape among college women, reports that more than 40
percent of women students say they are victims of
some sort of sexual assault, up to and including rape,
but only approximately 5 percent of them ever report
the crime, and an even smaller number than that are
actually investigated anywhere. Several studies attest
to the fact that close to half of the students sexually
assaulted-- which can be anything from undesired touching
to rape-- never mentioned what happened to anyone.
This non-reporting means that schools
record and report numbers of sexual assault that are
well below what is actually happening on campus, and
that is the way many school administrators would like
to keep it, according to Wendy Murphy, the former
sex crimes prosecutor and visiting scholar at Harvard
Law who is representing the student filing the complaint
with the DOE. Murphy points out that as long as no
formal complaint is made to the administration, the
schools need not include it in their statistics under
the Clery Act. "The new rule at Harvard is like
an announcement that they don’t want to hear
from victims if all they have is their word,"
she notes. "This keeps the reporting rates down
and that allows them to file data that is inconsistent
with what we know the numbers to be."
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