Jeanne Cleary

(WOMENSENEWS)–Harvard University ignited a firestorm of protest last spring when its undergraduate school scrapped its long-standing policy of investigating all rape charges brought by one student against another. Instead it imposed a requirement that the victim provide “sufficient corroborating evidence” before a probe could be launched.

In a vote Tuesday, May 20, a special faculty committee appointed to review the policy reversed course and agreed to replace “corroborating evidence” with “as much information as possible.” The members also approved recommendations from the student-faculty Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard for a new office for sexual assault prevention and the expansion of rape awareness education.

Harvard College director of communications Robert Mitchell could not be reached for comment on Tuesday’s vote. His office stressed, however, that the new “language is not describing any change to the Advisory Board’s procedures that were adopted last year. And as was true according to the Ad Board procedures last year, and as continues to be true now, every complaint is heard.”

Sarah B. Levit-Shore, a student member of the sexual-assault committee, called the vote “a significant step forward.” She added, however, that the real test would be next year’s report on how Harvard implements the committee’s recommendations.

A year ago, the student activist group the Coalition against Sexual Violence rejected Harvard’s new rule as overly burdensome, arguing that sexual assaults rarely have such evidence. They demanded the policy be reworded and that all sex assault charges be investigated. Alisha Johnson, a member of that activist group, says she now hopes the Ivy League’s latest sexual-assault policy will help rape victims on other campuses. “People pay attention to what Harvard does, so if this helps other schools address this issue adequately then we’re happy about that.”

Whether Harvard’s decision will push others to take the same approach is a matter of some doubt, however.

Campus Rape Statistics Unreliable

Figures on sexual assaults against college women have historically been sketchy. Part of the problem is simply underreporting, says Diane Clark, a professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She says that victims are confused about what constitutes rape and that universities often fail to inform them on the issue.

“I’m not convinced that many college students really understand when their rights have been violated and that they don’t feel they’re at least somewhat to blame,” says Clark. She is conducting a study on how male and female students perceive sexual assault.

In addition, little effort has been made to monitor the crime nationally. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act was passed, named after a student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., who was raped and murdered in her dorm in 1986. The law requires any schools receiving federal aid to notify victims of their right to report their assaults to law-enforcement authorities. The schools must also issue annual reports on crimes committed on their campuses.

A two-year study published last year by the Education Development Center, Inc. of Newton, Mass., found that over 60 percent of the schools fail to comply with the act. And the 2000 “National Baseline Study on Campus Sexual Assault: Adjudicating Sexual Assault Cases” by the nonprofit Association for Student Judicial Affairs, a professional group, based in College Station, Texas, concluded that “the exact percentage of incidents of rape or attempted rape which occur on a college campus can’t be determined.” Nonetheless, “The Sexual Victimization of College Women,” sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000, did estimate that one in four women experienced rape or attempted rape during their college career.

Tactics to Minimize Rape Reporting on the Rise

Catherine Bath, program director for Security On Campus, Inc. says that data collected by her King of Prussia, Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group indicated the number of campus rapes has remained relatively steady over the decade. What she does see, however, is an alarming increase in the tactics schools use to minimize reporting.

“We’ve seen victims outright discouraged from reporting rape because they’ve been told they could be found guilty of drinking or having sex in the dorm,” says Bath. She adds that campus rape victims are “afraid of even going through the campus judicial system, for fear of being sanctioned.”

Two such cases have been in the headlines recently. Last year, Boston University student Meghann Horner reported a sexual assault and told campus authorities she had smoked marijuana with her assailant. The university cleared the alleged rapist but charged Horner with illegal drug use. Those charges, later overturned, came on the heels of protests over the treatment of another Boston University rape victim. In that case, Kristin Roslonski was suspended for drinking on campus after she had reported being raped by a fellow student. Roslonski has filed a $1.4 million civil suit against Boston University.

 Wendy Murphy

Wendy Murphy, a Boston attorney who has worked with campus rape victims for 10 years, cites other strategies schools use to discourage rape reporting. These include: insisting victims turn over all information on psychological counseling or medical exams prior to the assault and waiving any confidentiality rights to those files; instituting strict statutes of limitations–most college victims will not immediately report the assault; erroneously warning victims that if they get a rape evidence kit done they will have to press charges even if they later change their minds; and pressuring victims to accept a campus mediation process in lieu of outside judicial recourse.

Murphy says that last hurdle–of pushing campus mediation–is the most egregious. “What victims need most in these cases is access to outside counseling and representation,” she says.

In another recent case, Georgetown University student Kate Dieringer reported she was drugged and raped in 2001, her first year, by a student who was acting as her student-orientation advisor. The school held a hearing on the charges, but demanded Dieringer sign a confidentiality agreement before she could be informed of the outcome–and know whether her alleged assailant would be allowed to return to campus.

Georgetown’s Office of Student Conduct not only let the accused rapist off, but the office’s director labeled Dieringer “a woman scorned.” Outraged that the confidentiality agreement kept her from pursuing the charges elsewhere, Dieringer filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education charging that the agreement violated the Clery Act, which requires campuses to inform victims of their right to outside counsel. Dieringer’s case is still pending.

Gretchen Cook is a writer in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

Education Development Center, Inc.–
“Campus Sexual Assault: How America’s Institutions of Higher Education Respond (Report to Congress)”:

Association for Student Judicial Affairs–
“National Baseline Study on Campus Sexual Assault:
Adjudicating Sexual Assault Cases”:

U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Justice Programs–
“The Sexual Victimization of College Women”: