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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

On Preventing Sexual Violence

July-August 2003

Much more aggressive education, a new office to provide "the first line of support" to students with concerns about sexual violence, and a change in procedures when sexual-assault cases are presented for discipline are the principal recommendations of the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard (CASAH). The group, chaired by Jennifer Leaning—professor of international health at the School of Public Health and assistant professor of medicine—issued its report to the community on April 17, for discussion and action by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) during its May meetings. (The complete text and supporting appendixes appear at www.fas.harvard.edu/~casah.)

The committee was established in May 2002, after FAS adopted a new standard requiring "sufficient independent corroboration" before the Administrative Board—the College disciplinary body—would hear student allegations of peer sexual assaults (see "Adjudicating Sexual-Assault Cases," July-August 2002, page 81). That standard was proposed because the Board was unable to resolve many of the rising number of complaints it received. Whatever administrative gains the new standard promised, however, it prompted much concern that broader issues of sexual misconduct were being ignored. (The language has since been refined and liberalized to require students to provide "as much information as possible" to support their allegations, all of which will be investigated.)

CASAH was charged with reporting to dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis and University provost Steven E. Hyman on "all institutional support services for victims of sexual violence and all preventive, educational, and outreach programs to reduce the incidence of sexual violence" in the College.

Jennifer Leaning, M.D., chair of the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard

Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Leaning

Leaning spoke for the 11-member committee—including faculty and staff, students, and administrators—the morning its report was released. She emphasized especially the "urgency of expanding preventive education—changing the climate on campus, beginning a discussion of norms, of behavior, of attitudes toward the other." The goal, she said, is creating understanding that there are "certain kinds of intimate behavior among partners that are absolutely unacceptable in the Harvard community."

Discussion of the problem is not new at Harvard. CASAH's report details the work of the "Date Rape Task Force of Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges" during the 1990-1991 academic year. Its proposed definition of rape—where sexual penetration occurred without clear consent—was modified to refer to expressed unwillingness, the language incorporated in the Handbook for Students in the 1993-1994 academic year. Following two rape cases and the dismissal of two students in 1998-1999, it became the usual practice to advise students accused of serious criminal misconduct to seek legal counsel when a complaint was filed with the Ad Board. Then the subject was revisited last year, leading to CASAH's creation.

Nor are the issues unique to the College. "This is a universal problem on college campuses across the country," Leaning noted, with Harvard's experience comparable to national trends. According to the Harvard data for the 2002 National College Health Assessment, 14.6 percent of women (and 4.2 percent of men) reported "sexual touching against your will"; 3.8 percent of women (and almost 1 percent of men) reported "attempted sexual penetration (vaginal, oral, anal) against your will"; and 1.3 percent of women (and 0.3 percent of men) reported "sexual penetration...against your will." But these figures, and 65 complaints of "forcible sexual offenses" filed with the University Police Department during the past four years, represent only "limited information about the frequency of rape or sexual assault," the report concluded; underreporting is considered epidemic.

The committee summarized factors contributing to campus sexual assault: students finding themselves "for the first time unfettered by rules, restrictions, and parental guidance"; a residential community putting young men and women in proximity to one another; the "desire to experiment with sexual intimacy"; alcohol use; and "a declining number of younger people enter[ing] college with previous sexual experience."

During the faculty's discussion of the report on May 6, numerous speakers highlighted the central role of alcohol. In most cases of alleged nonconsensual sex, Lewis reported, the inebriation of both parties at the time lowered inhibitions and caused problems in gathering factual accounts afterward. There was apparent support for separate efforts to address problems of alcohol use, and President Lawrence H. Summers said members of the community should not tolerate "behaviors commonly antecedent to sexual assault."

The committee's recommended response pairs prevention with meaningful penalties for transgressors—an approach that combines "strong normative messages about personal dignity and choice with substantive actions against those found responsible for violating College rules." Because prevention sometimes fails, the committee proposed much more accessible support services for those harmed. As a related step, CASAH also advised, in an extension of its original charter, a course of Ad Board proceedings that it feels can produce better outcomes when assault cases arise.

*Education. Unlike the glancing discussion of sexual assault heretofore provided during orientation week, freshmen this fall will have an evening session devoted solely to sexual-assault education. The message, delivered by professional educators and actors, will be reinforced by small group workshops in every entryway during the first semester. As sophomores, they will receive additional, House-based, education, beginning in the fall of 2004. Programs will also be designed for "student leaders and role models," including captains of athletic teams and officers of social clubs; pilots are to begin in the spring of 2004. Contents will include "respect, consent, and power in relationships," plus discussion of alcohol, personal responsibility, and wider social messages about sexuality.

*Support Services. Factors inhibiting recovery from sexual assault include delayed access to support services, poor quality services, and "unsupportive reactions from family, friends, and community members," CASAH reported. Harvard may have more services than students can negotiate quickly and confidently, and their quality is inconsistent. To provide options, guidance, and confidants other than deans or tutors on whom students rely for academic support, the committee proposed an Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response that would report to an assistant dean of Harvard College and be staffed by professionals, two full-time and one half-time. Its trained director (likely Susan Marine, the current coordinator of sexual-assault prevention services), education specialist, and prevention specialist would drive the educational program, coordinate round-the-clock support services, oversee staff training, assist students in assault cases, and work with "male peer leadership organizations."

*Discipline. CASAH found students especially dissatisfied with Administrative Board procedures: the time taken to resolve cases, the opacity of the process, and members' lack of expertise. The committee recommended the use of an expert "single fact finder" to ensure the quality and consistency of investigations, and speedier reporting to the responsible subcommittee. When the fact finder recommends against bringing a charge, CASAH suggested that the subcommittee or the full Board consider offering the complainant and respondent the opportunity for a personal appearance to air the issues. Leaning said that procedure would go "a long way toward helping students feel there will not be an abrogation of voice." Committee member Katherine Park, a professor of the history of science and chair of the committee on degrees in women's studies, told the faculty meeting on May 6 that the fact-finding procedure assured students that every assault complaint would be investigated. Park's dismay over the "sufficient corroboration" standard enacted last year played a catalytic role in the creation and chartering of CASAH. Now she has agreed to serve as a faculty representative on the Ad Board.

What effect will CASAH's work have? Its recommendations were supported by the faculty in a May 20 vote, and are being implemented by the College administration. The committee acknowledged that "the reported incidence of sexual assault on campus may stay constant or even increase" as the problem is publicized and students become more confident about the response mechanisms put in place.

Over time, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and a standing faculty-student advisory committee chaired by Leaning will evaluate whether Harvard's programs advance the committee's aims: "to establish norms, change attitudes, and make inroads toward changing behavior."

In the near term, CASAH has encouraged airing the issue throughout the community, from students to "the highest levels of the University." The people who met with the committee during its work "sought a forthright statement" concerning norms, expectations, and "respect for the dignity and integrity of personal relationships" from the president and dean of the College in their regular communications with undergraduates. By delivering their report, the committee members have begun the conversation.