A lawsuit filed by a Harvard graduate who said she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student and then forced by the university to live in the same dorm as her attacker accuses the institution of failing to protect her and of creating a culture of silence about sexual violence.
The lawsuit filed by the former student, Alyssa Leader, in the United States District Court in Massachusetts seeks a jury trial for unspecified damages. Ms. Leader said in a telephone interview that she was trying to raise awareness about what she described as Harvard’s inadequacy in handling sexual assault cases.
”The main thing that I want to see is accountability,” Ms. Leader, 22, said. ”No one should have to live in fear of their safety. I should not have had to live with my abuser. They should have done something to separate us.”
Ms. Leader, who graduated in May, and her lawyers went public with the lawsuit at a news conference in Cambridge, Mass.
The suit renews attention to previous complaints that Harvard and other institutions do not do enough to handle students’ complaints of sexual assault and harassment.
In an emailed statement, Harvard said it does not comment on pending litigation. But it said the university responds ”fairly and purposefully” to every accusation of sexual assault that it receives.
”The continued prevalence of sexual harassment and assault at Harvard and on college campuses across the nation is deeply disturbing,” the university said.
In 2014, Harvard was one of more than 50 colleges and universities under investigation by the United States Education Department, accused of violating federal laws related to sexual assault complaints. The government has threatened to withhold funds from universities that do not have adequate sexual misconduct policies.
Harvard later announced a broad new policy aimed at preventing sexual harassment and sexual violence, defining sexual harassment for the first time and creating new procedures for dealing with complaints.
In its statement in reply to the lawsuit, Harvard said that since September 2014, when the new policy and procedures took effect, its Office of Dispute Resolution received 34 formal complaints for investigation involving 11 schools and units and involving students, faculty and staff.
”Of the closed cases with a known respondent and concluding with a finding, the outcomes are approximately an even mix of findings of a violation vs. no violation,” it said.
Ms. Leader, who was driven to take legal action after speaking with other women who’d had similar experiences, said the university fell short in dealing with her complaints, leading to failing grades, distress and other emotional issues.
The lawsuit said the university had not discussed possible solutions — including changes in housing, work and course schedules — as required by the university’s policy in responding to sexual assault complaints.
It said that in March 2013, Ms. Leader and a fellow student, identified only as John Doe 1, started a relationship that grew over time to include contact in which he ”sexually assaulted and harassed” her.
It described episodes of abuse in which John Doe 1 would become threatening or violent by slamming doors and pushing furniture when she resisted his advances. She said she tried to end their relationship several times until finally managing to do so in March 2014.
According to the lawsuit, Ms. Leader reported his behavior and her fears to university counselors, the police and officials several times between the spring of 2013 and the spring of 2015.
In November 2014, she said, she told officials that she felt unsafe and asked to have John Doe 1 moved from Cabot House dormitory, where they both lived. Ms. Leader said she was told he would not be moved, and she was discouraged from making a formal complaint.
Ms. Leader was also subject to retaliatory harassment by John Doe 1, according to the filings, both after she ended their relationship and after an official investigation was begun in February 2015 by the university’s Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution.
The lawsuit accuses him of showing up at a cafe in the dormitory where they both worked — she as a barista and he as a manager — even when he was not on duty, and making harassing comments or lingering outside the cafe staring at her.
His friends and new girlfriend would also harass her, it said, showing up at the cafe and sitting at different exits so that she would have to walk by them.
After repeatedly complaining that she felt unsafe seeing him in the halls and dining room of their dormitory, she went to court and obtained a restraining order in April 2015, a month before graduation. The university then moved him to another building.
In July 2015, university investigators found that John Doe 1 was ”not responsible” for any rape, assault, abuse, harassment or retaliation. Ms. Leader unsuccessfully appealed the findings.
One of her lawyers, Alexander S. Zalkin, said in a telephone interview that they decided to file suit against the university for damages rather than sue the person she accused of assaulting her because of the ”larger issue.”
”The more traumatic of the two is the institutional betrayal and lack of response to her reporting,” he said.
Mr. Zalkin said he believed that the university had an interest in protecting its reputation and did not want to officially report the violence, as required, because it could risk losing funding.
”No one wants to be known as the rape school,” he said.
This case was not handled by our firm. However, if you have any questions regarding this case, or any employment or labor matter, please contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.
If you feel you have been mistreated by your employer or in your place of employment and would like to explore your employment law options, contact the experienced employment law attorneys today at 203-221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com. We have the experience and knowledge you need at this critical juncture.
Source: The New York Times
***All posts for the MayaLaw.com blog are created as a public service for the community. This case overview is intended for informational purposes only, and is not a solicitation of any client.***