Harvard Student Who Claims On-Campus Sexual Assault Slams University Policies

Anonymous woman writes about depression and lack of support.

April 1, 2014, 4:54 PM

April 1, 2014— -- A female student who says she survived a violent sexual attack at Harvard University in 2013 has written a scathing letter in the Ivy League school's newspaper, The Crimson, claiming that her complaints were dismissed by college officials.

"I finally admitted to myself," she writes. "I have lost my battle against this institution."

The woman says that 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.

The letter 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.

Editors at The Crimson agreed to run the piece, "Dear Harvard: You Win," without her name "due to the private and intensely personal nature of its content," and disabled commenting to protect her identity.

"It is our hope that this piece will bring to light issues that affect members of our community and inform campus-wide conversations on sexual violence and health services at Harvard," said the editor's note.

A Harvard University spokeswoman said on Tuesday that a statement on the allegations was "coming soon," but it did not arrive by press time.

The author of the letter 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."

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.

In a 2009 study of undergraduate women, an estimated 19 percent had experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

The National Institute of Justice reports that at least 80 percent of all sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim.

The author of the Crimson piece said her assailant was a friend that 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.

Harvard's policy, which is now more than 20 years old, defines "indecent assault and battery" to be anything involving "unwanted touching or fondling of a sexual nature that is accompanied by physical force or threat of bodily injury."

"It does not provide any definition of consent beyond the brief mention, in its definition of rape, that a victim cannot consent if he or she is unable to express unwillingness due to alcohol or drugs, among other factors," she writes.

The victim said she decided not to press charges.

"Our policy is so outdated and narrow in scope that it discourages survivors from entering an investigative process in the first place," she said. "And without such a process, Harvard will take very little action against the alleged perpetrator."

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.

"The dynamics of college life appear to fuel the problem, as many victims are abused while they're drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated," says its 2014 report. "Most college victims are assaulted by someone they know -- and parties are often the site of these crimes. Notably, campus assailants are often serial offenders: one study found that of the men who admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, some 63 percent said they committed an average of six rapes each. College sexual assault survivors suffer from high levels of mental health problems (like depression and PTSD) and drug and alcohol abuse. Reporting rates are also particularly low."

Recommendations from that task force are expected later this month, said Berkowitz.

"The administration has taken a civil rights approach," he said. "They have put schools on notice that they are considering ways to deal with sexual assault as a Title IX violation. I think this task force seems to have gotten the attention of a lot of colleges and I hear there has been a lot of activity in the last two months. They know that once the colleges are in the public, they have to address their policies."

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."

As for the author of the Crimson article, she says that Harvard officials told her "about 20 times" that she could transfer to a new dorm, away from her assailant, but she decided to stay among friends.

"At first, this option felt unfair," she writes. "Why should I be the one moving when I had done nothing wrong? Did this imply that what had happened to me was my fault? Then, the idea of transferring felt utterly disempowering."

She says the school issued a no-contact order against the man, but that was not enough. "[I]n my opinion that amounted to the equivalent of a slap on the hand for my assailant."

"I know deep down that all those administrators are not bad people," she writes. "They want to be supportive, and they really try to be. But they have no idea how to do deal with cases of sexual violence because they have not been trained sufficiently.

"Moreover, these administrators operate within a system that offers little alternative for people in my situation and bounds administrators to inaction because their jobs depend on it."

"This system is a product of a broader rape culture that permeates our society -- a culture in which it is acceptable to blame a victim of assault for drinking too much, in which the burden is always on the survivor to advocate for her- or himself, in which inaction is always preferred, if only to make sure the assailant does not sue anyone for unfair punishment. But that does not mean that we cannot do anything to change the way we handle sexual assault at Harvard."

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