Editorial: Sexual assault victims should not have to live next to their assailant

Alyssa Leader, a recent Harvard graduate, listens while flanked by her attorneys Alex Zalkin, left, and Irwin Zalkin at a news conference, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, in Cambridge, Mass., about the filing of a Title IX civil lawsuit on her behalf alleging the university failed to adequately protect her and investigate complaints of sexual assault, harassment and retaliation. Leader says she was sexually assaulted between March 2013 and March 2014 on campus while she was a student at Harvard. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

On Feb. 16, a 2015 graduate of Harvard College filed a Title IX lawsuit in federal court against her alma mater, alleging “deliberate indifference” and “premises liability” in the handling of her ongoing reports of sexual assault, according to a copy of the complaint filed

Alyssa Leader, the plaintiff, was forced to live in the same dorm of her abuser, who admitted to wrongdoing, where she recounts repeated instances of assault and harassment. Her abuser would also frequently visit her workplace, causing her to skip shifts out of fear of an encounter.

Leader met with university officials and filed formal complaints with the Harvard Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response as well as the dean of her residence hall throughout 2014 to 2015. After months of frustration and inaction, she decided to go to the Harvard Police on April 27, 2015 to get a restraining order. It was only after this court order that her abuser was forced to move out of her dorm, weeks before she was ready to graduate.

No student should be forced to live in the same building as his or her assailant. Students have a right to a speedy response from their university or college and should not have to go to police to have their claims or fear of safety taken seriously. Preemptive measures should be taken to make sure victims and assailants aren’t randomly placed together in the first place. The “Dear Colleague Letter,” a document of the Department of Education regarding peer sexual harassment and assault, states that school’s response and investigation “must be prompt, thorough, and impartial” to comply with Title IX standards. 

Leader’s experience was anything but. In a statement released by Harvard on Feb. 17, the day after Leader filed her lawsuit in district court, the college advocates for “restrictions on contact; course-schedule or work-schedule altercation; changes in houses; leaves of absence; or increased monitoring of certain areas of campus.” The way in which the college handled Leader’s claim, however, raises doubts on their commitment and prioritization of victim safety and protection.

Harvard is sadly not alone in being guilty of this, and was one of the colleges included in the 2014 federal investigation by 12 students accusing their administrations of mishandling their cases in violation of Title IX.  “For a long time, I felt like maybe it has been a mistake or maybe something had gone wrong,” Leader told the Huffington Post. “But after I graduated I kept hearing stories of people in similar situations as mine or more difficult situations.”

This case is yet another reminder universities themselves must be more responsive to the needs to victims of sexual harassment/assault victims, and update outdated and bureaucratic policies that can lead to loopholes, the failure to act and a hostile environment.