Harvard alters sex assault policy

by Sarah Betts | 5/23/02 5:00am

Harvard University's Administrative Board will no longer investigate students' allegations of sexual misconduct unless they provide sufficient evidence, the faculty decided earlier this month.

The new policy is controversial, since some believe that it places a burden of proof on victims that will result in less action being taken against those who commit sexual crimes.

"The new policy is outrageous and an abandonment of students," Harvard sophomore Sarah Levit-Shore said.

According to Harvard Assistant Dean David Fithian, the change comes from "a long-standing experience" of the Administrative Board, which has found that students are often "disappointed and frustrated" when a case does not have enough evidence to result in a finding.

"In some cases, it was clear that there was little evidence to gather," Fithian said. "If it came down to conflicting personal accounts, we went through a long process and could find nothing."

Levit-Shore, a member of Harvard's Coalition Against Sexual Violence, sees the move as an acknowledgement that the university is unable to deal with issues of assault.

The new policy, she said, will force students to prove themselves even before they have a hearing, and adds to an environment she described as already hostile.

In response to criticism that the new requirement of evidence will deter victims with legitimate complaints who were attacked in private, Fithian said that "evidence" will be very widely construed.

"If someone is seen leaving a room crying, or talks to a roommate, that is evidence," he said. A student could also mention medical attention sought after an assault as evidence.

"We will try to take into account any source," Fithian said.

Dartmouth's Coordinator for Sexual Abuse Awareness Abby Tassel said that the policy would likely result in fewer cases being heard.

"It could even result in an increase in perpetration if fewer people are punished," Tassel said. "It's really a step backward."

Men's Project intern Brian Greenough '03 said that the policy did not appear to be a proactive approach in trying to solve the sexual assault problem, since students often don't know where to go for help and sometimes don't wish to initiate a criminal investigation.

"I don't think this will help with the prosecution and reporting of an already underreported crime," Greenough said.

Fithian acknowledged that the new policy would result in some incidents going uninvestigated, and said that it was important to recognize that "disciplinary action cannot support all students who have had an unfortunate experience."

The university, he said, will find other ways to help these students. He stressed the viability of other options, such as criminal investigations.

On Monday, the faculty also initiated a committee to study the university's current system of support for sexual assault victims.

Katie Oliviero '01, a programming intern for the Dartmouth Women's Resource Center, termed the new policy "worrisome," because of the possibility that it could set the standards for other schools.

Dartmouth Assistant Dean of the College Daniel Nelson said that the College has no plans to change its current policy on sexual abuse to require more evidence before an incident is brought before the Committee on Standards.

Currently, students who bring forth charges of sexual misconduct must provide what Nelson termed "credible evidence," although not to the degree that Harvard will require.

"Harvard's previous policy was that any case of peer-to-peer conflict automatically went to a hearing," Nelson said. "Dartmouth does not have a policy that goes automatically to the Committee on Standards. When a case goes to the committee, there was already a judgement that there was enough evidence to pursue it."

At Dartmouth, though, that evidence doesn't have to come from multiple witnesses if a student's personal account provides a cohesive and reasonable account, Nelson said.

"An investigation could go forward without a second person's statement," Nelson said.