June 11, 2002
A legal viewpoint

Recently I posted about a change to Harvard's sexual assault policy, which would now require "corroborating evidence" for an official school inquiry. My father read this story and was rather appalled by it. Here's the feedback he sent me, from his perspective as a judge:

It has been reported that as of the school year 2003 "peer" complaints of "sexual assault" will not be investigated by Harvard University without "corroborating evidence".

This change in the student handbook has been brought about by asserted "financial" burdens necessarily incurred by investigating all claims of peer sexual assault.

Does any of the claptrap make anyone take pause as to the underlying message coming from the administration, faculty and student body of this University? The cost of investigation is putting a burden on their already tight "budget" is the message, or more bluntly, "we don't want to spend the money looking at all those claims of sexual assault coming from our student population." Would the result have been the same of complaints about faculty sexual assaults of students?

The question has to be asked, how many complaints are we talking about for the years 1999 to 2002? According to the Harvard's website, in 1999 there we 18541 students enrolled in all courses, fulltime and part-time, in all divisions. 34 sex offenses reported were listed in the Harvard University Police Department's crime stats in 2000. For my purposes, I include their statutory definition of forcible fondling since it most nearly squares up with "sexual assault". Forcible fondling includes, inter alia, touching the body where the bathing suit covers for the purposes of sexual gratification against the will of the touchee. As a comparison, according to the Cambridge Police Department, between 1998 and 2000, 41 rapes were reported. Certainly I am not comparing "sexual assault" to rape, but if we used the classification of sex crime, these stats become significant.

34 "sexual assaults" for the calendar year of 2000 with a student population of 18,500+! Some how I find it difficult to understand the amendment to the student handbook and how eliminating investigations when there is no "corroborating evidence" a cost effective remedy. Much less, I view this amendment as a significant blow to the pursuit of justice.

"Corroborating evidence" is a fascinating phrase. How do you corroborate "forcible fondling" when you are at a frat party or whatever and you are the victim of an unappreciated, unwelcome and intrusive hand on your body? Previously, it's only your word if you want to file a complaint, but now, you cannot file a complaint, you have no "corroborating evidence", no bruise, no scrap on your body, no "medals", only your word and your credibility. Historically, the credibility of the complainant been the basis of many charges and convictions simply because a seasoned cop or prosecutor had the experience and wisdom to go forward with only the complainant's word. I can attest to that fact, since there are a few inmates doing time after convictions based upon the credibility of the complainant in case tried before me.

Someone is going the have to explain all this to me, the old fashioned, out of touch believer in using all those years of experience and all the common sense acquired doing business with the person on the other end of the conversation. Do I believe what this person just said, does it make sense, have the ring of truth, and what is this persons ability to recall past events and report them with accurately?

Consider this set of facts: A coed dorm; a roommate who has a frequent visitor, also living on the same floor; the complainant is in the dorm on a weekend night and the dorm floor is empty; sometime during the early evening the complainant awakes to find the friend of the roommate in bed and fondling the complainant's genitals. The victim makes enough noise that the perp leaves. There is no physical assault so as to leave telltale "medals" (bruises), scraps or lacerations, nothing; identity is not an issue, but under the new policy of Harvard, the is no "corroborating evidence". No harm no foul?

I guess that single sex dorms, curfews, dress code and mandatory attendance at religious services are next, after all, without "corroborating evidence" there is no problem with sexual assault at Harvard.

Would an informed citizenry vote to retain in office the Legislators who voted for such a bill?

Dad's making an implicit assumption that most if not all of these sexual assault cases involve both genders. I've read enough crime fiction set in all-male British public schools that I wouldn't be so sure. It's orthogonal to his point, but I wanted to make note of it.

I also note that TAPped agrees with Dad in that these cases should properly be referred to the police instead of being handled internally. Harvard students Evan Day and Matthew Yglesias have some comments as well.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 11, 2002 to Society and cultcha