(CAMBRIDGE, Mass.) — The victim of an on-campus sexual assault who wrote a scathing op-ed piece this week in Harvard University’s Crimson has “generated a lot of emotion” at the Ivy League school, prompting university officials to write a letter to its undergraduate students.
The student, who remained anonymous, says in her piece, “Dear Harvard: You Win,” that she survived a violent sexual attack in 2013 and her complaints were dismissed by college officials. In response, Harvard officials said they will support a student task force to evaluate its sexual assault policy.
“Harvard College as an institution and as a community deplores sexual violence and is committed to its prevention and to supporting its victims,” wrote Stephen Lassonde, dean of student life. “Sexual harassment and sexual assault can never be tolerated.”
“This op-ed has sparked discussions across the community,” he wrote in the letter, which he shared with ABC News. “As we enhance and refine our policies and procedures, we also need constructive engagement with our community, especially the student community. This includes using the existing support structure, speaking with your tutors, proctors and resident deans, and engaging and supporting your peers.”
The student’s op-ed piece has once again put a spotlight on the issue of campus sexual assaults, just as a White House task force is set to release recommendations on how to cope with the problem.
The woman says she has been living in the same dorm with the man who assaulted her, “running into [him] about five times a day,” and yet all her efforts to have him removed were ignored by her resident dean, housemaster, sexual assault tutors and counselors from the university’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, as well as her lawyer.
As a result of the op-ed, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council has formed a task force to discuss the university’s two-decades-old sexual assault policy, which the victim says is “outdated and narrow in scope.” It will collaborate with the student activist organization Our Harvard Can Do Better, which has been advocating for such changes.
Undergraduate Council Vice President Sietse K. Goffard told The Crimson that he was “taken aback” and “disturbed” by the scenario described in the anonymous Crimson piece and had sent it to numerous campus officials to urge action.
The author of the op-ed said that as a result of the assault, a psychiatrist diagnosed her with anxiety disorder and depression. She writes that she was having difficulty keeping up with her classes, taking pills to sleep and having nightmares about another assault.
“I spend most of my time outside of class curled up in bed, crying, sleeping, or staring at the ceiling, occasionally wondering if I just heard my assailant’s voice in the staircase,” she writes. “Often, the cough syrup sitting in my drawer or the pavement several floors down from my window seem like reasonable options.”
“I’m exhausted from asking for extensions because of ‘personal issues,'” she writes. “I’m exhausted from avoiding the laundry room, the house library and the mailroom because I’m scared of who I will run into….More than anything, I’m exhausted from living in the same house as the student who sexually assaulted me nine months ago.”
She said her assailant was a friend whom she trusted.
“It was a freezing Friday night when I stumbled into his dorm room after too many drinks,” she wrote. “He took my shirt off and started biting the skin on my neck and breast. I pushed back on his chest and asked him to stop kissing me aggressively. He laughed. He said that I should ‘just wear a scarf’ to cover the marks.”
She said he trapped her against a wall and abused and hurt her body even as she protested. “I was scared to death that he would continue to ignore what I said. I stopped everything and turned my back to him, praying he would leave me alone,” she wrote.
When the victim reported the assault to college officials, she said there was little hope they could launch an investigation and charge her assailant because he “may not have technically violated the school’s policy in the student handbook.”
“Even though he had verbally pressured me into sexual activity and physically hurt me, the incident did not fall within the scope of the school’s narrow definition of sexual assault,” she wrote.
This is not the first time The Crimson has addressed the issue of sexual assault. Editor Samuel Weinstock pointed out that the newspaper last year published the story of another sexual assault victim, named “Julie.”
She said that Harvard’s Administrative Board decided in closed deliberations to allow the student who sexually assaulted her to remain on campus. She also remained anonymous and told the newspaper she “feared retaliation from her perpetrator.”
Sexual violence is “common” on the American college campus, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), and this woman’s personal story is a familiar one, advocates said.
“The general things she is expressing are things we hear from many survivors,” said Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of RAINN. “And I think there is a lot of frustration about the way universities are dealing with reports of rape. I can’t speak to the specifics of her case, whether or not the college handled it well or not, but her complaints are consistent with those of many others.”
“One of the hardest things a survivor has to deal with, and we’d like to see, is the university to quickly make [housing] accommodations,” he said.
The National Institute of Justice reports that at least 80 percent of all sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim.
Justice Department statistics reveal that fewer than 5 percent of college women report rape and crimes of sexual assault.
Noting those alarming statistics, the White House Task Force on Women and Children has been set up to address the issue of sexual assaults on campus. Recommendations from that task force are expected later this month.
In 1992, the federal Jeanne Clery Act, also known as the “Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act,” was amended to require that schools afford victims of campus sexual assault certain basic rights. And in 1998, it required reporting of these crimes.
Congress also annually appropriates funds for schools to combat on-campus violence against women.
But, according to Berkowitz, colleges have been lax in reporting these statistics. “I think part of it is that no one wants to seem like a school where a lot of rapes happen, particularly when all the competitive schools are reporting low numbers,” he said. “The reality is that one school is probably not any worse than the next. This is a universal problem.”
He also noted that campus judicial systems are “not set up” to deal with serious crimes like rape: “They are established to deal with things like plagiarism and internal violations. Rape is more akin to murder and is a very elaborate crime.”
Harvard University officials said they would share the results of its new task force with the “entire Harvard community” in the coming months, said Lassonde, emphasizing students to avail themselves of a “number of resources that address sexual assault and harassment.”
“We look forward to seeing the results of that work,” he wrote.
“To build a community free of sexual violence and harassment will require all of us working together,” Lassonde said. “We take this issue very seriously and it is our hope that no student feels discouraged from reporting an incident.”
“Through our discussions and our actions we must be clear that sexual violence is not tolerated in our community,” he said. “Coming forward is one of the hardest things a person can do, which is why we must work to make it easier to speak to people within our community and get the support and guidance needed in these difficult and challenging situations.”
Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio
Recent posts in National News