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Harvard's Campus Sexual Assault Policy in Question

In 1991, Antioch College in Ohio announced their affirmative-consent policy as an approach to preventing sexual assault on campus. Initially, their policy of requiring verbal consent at each escalating interaction between students was mocked, but as pressure continues for colleges and universities to put a stop to sexual assaults on campus, affirmative consent has been widely adopted as the preferred policy. Meanwhile, those universities who have not adopted the affirmative consent policy, such as Harvard, are facing continuing pressure from students and faculty to make changes to bring them in line with the majority.

The federal government had threatened to withhold funding from colleges and universities that did not implement adequate sexual misconduct policies. Harvard is among the dozens of schools under investigation by the Education Department over the way they handle complaints of sexual assault and harassment. As a result, college officials across the country looked to update their sexual assault and harassment policies.

California is one of several states that recently made affirmative consent their policy at state universities. New Hampshire and New Jersey may soon follow suit. More than 800 schools now use some form of affirmative consent to define sexual assault policies. Affirmative consent requires all those participating to make sure that the other people not only do not object, but that they actively consent to the activity. The policy is based on the idea that "no means no" is not enough to protect people from sexual assault. However, not all universities have adopted this definition.

In July, Harvard University announced their university-wide policy to prevent sexual violence and harassment based on gender, orientation and identity. The policy contained a definition for sexual harassment, and outlined new procedures for handling complaints. Harvard's policy forbids, "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," and that, "conduct is unwelcome if a person did not request or invite it and regarded the unrequested or uninvited conduct as undesirable or offensive."

However, a number of students and faculty have spoken out against the new procedure and against the new definition of assault as too broad and vague. Some argue the new process is flawed, and stacked against the accused. Professor Janet Halley, one of the 28 current and retired law school faculty who signed an op-ed against the new policy, spoke out against the changes. They are concerned that the new policy could deny due process to the accused.

"It's a totally secret process, in which real genuine unfairness can happen, and it's so airtight that no one would know," Halley said. She continued that the Title IX officer would act as charger, prosecutor, investigator, judge, and appeals board all in one, and, "its sole task is to get this Title IX furor to go away."

Meanwhile, some students have argued that the op-ed piece is a step in the right direction, and seems to be defending those accused of sexual assault. Others see the policy as far from perfect, but a step in the right direction. One student group found the piece "displays a callous lack of understanding of sexual violence and its effect on survivors in educational institutions."

According to the U.S. Department of Education, other New England colleges currently facing Title IX sexual violence investigations include: Amherst College; Berklee College of Music; Boston University; Brandeis; Brown; Dartmouth; Emerson; Hampshire College; Harvard Law; Northeastern; Marlboro College; University of Connecticut; and UMass Amherst and Dartmouth.

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