US & Canada

Students fight universities' inaction on sexual assault

Caps with red tape
At Harvard commencement, students adorned their caps with red tape in protest

Allegations of sexual assault have intensified at Ivy League schools. Now students, schools and the government are trying to fight back.

During commencement week, Harvard tours are top-heavy with proud parents and hopefuls seeking information on admission to this venerated realm of elite education.

Historically it's also a bastion of male dominance. The tour guide chronicles the long battle for gender equality: women were first admitted in 1879, but "we like to call 1999 the official end of sexism".

That's when men and women finally got the same diplomas. The university now has a female president and, four years ago for the first time, the graduating class had more women than men.

But if assuming they compare with the national average, one-fifth of them were sexually assaulted in some way while they were students. And this university is one of dozens that has been called to task for how poorly it has handled complaints.

"The trauma imparted by the process was much too close to the trauma caused by the actual assault," says former Harvard student Madeleine Smith.

Madeline Smith
Madeleine Smith spoke at a White House summit on sexual violence on campus

Rape 'derailed everything'

She filed a rape case against her ex-boyfriend through the university's adjudicatory system. What should have taken two months stretched to seven, during which time he continued to live in her residence building.

"It was terrible," she says, "it derailed everything, my academics were much harder."

Madeleine told her story at the launch of a White House report on college sexual violence, describing what it was like to sit "in a room of Harvard professors as they look at a magnified photo of your backside covered in bruises and broken blood-vessels, because those are the personal moments that no-one ever talks about."

The White House has named 55 colleges and universities under investigation for mishandling sexual assault complaints. Besides Harvard the list also includes other Ivy League institutions such as Princeton and Dartmouth, as well as schools like Florida State and the Pennsylvania State University.

Emily Fox-Penner belongs to a group called Our Harvard Can Do Better. She has filed a formal complaint against the university with the government, citing a law prohibiting gender discrimination at universities known as Title IX.

In 2011, the Obama administration put colleges on notice that Title IX could be used to hold them accountable on sexual assault cases, which triggered a number of lawsuits and helped build a formidable student lobby.

Harvard activists have a long list of demands for reform, but one of the priorities is changing the university's definition of consent, to a clear "yes."

At the moment, if a woman doesn't say no or physically resist, the university is less likely to view the incident as rape, says Ms Fox-Penner, especially where alcohol is involved.

"One thing that gets overlooked is that alcohol is often used as a weapon against potential victims on campus," she says, "especially when you're looking at often male-controlled party spaces that are dispensing alcohol to maybe freshmen."

The following day Ms Fox-Penner and other members of her group are dispensing rolls of red tape. It's the eve of commencement and they're planning a demonstration for the ceremony.

The idea is to get graduating students to put red tape on their caps to show solidarity with rape survivors.

"We're using red tape to show that we are not going to stand for the bureaucracy they present us when we as students want to make Harvard a better place, " says Pearl, a Harvard senior.

Senate pressure

In fact Harvard is taking action.

The university has hired a Title IX officer and prepared a new policy on sexual assault that is being reviewed by the government. Recently it set up a task force on prevention. This "will significantly enhance how Harvard responds to incidents of sexual misconduct", it said in a statement.

The university refused BBC requests for an official interview.

In the meantime, pressure is growing not only from the White House but Capitol Hill, where senators such as Claire McCaskill have begun drafting legislation.

At a recent forum, participants tackled the issue of penalties for student rapists, who are occasionally suspended, very rarely expelled.

"I know the vast majority of these perpetrators aren't even getting a criminal interview," Ms McCaskill said, as she heard that rape survivors still don't feel safe, even though they are filing cases and speaking out. "We aren't going to get any meaningful deterrent on this problem until that begins happening."

A graphic reminder of the problem jolted Harvard in March when the campus newspaper published a letter from an assault victim, nearly a year after the university initiated its reforms.

Entitled Dear Harvard: You Win, the anonymous woman graphically described her trauma at failing to get her assailant removed from their shared residence, and said Harvard's "out-dated and narrow" policy discouraged her from even filing a case.

"Dear Harvard, I am writing to let you know that I give up. I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only - quite literally - to save my life."

It was a disturbing and compelling voice, one amongst a growing number that cannot be ignored.

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