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Harvard University creates task force to address sexual assault policy

Harvard University on Thursday announced the creation of a new task force dedicated to addressing the occurrence and prevention of sexual assaults around the university community.

The task force is composed of faculty, students, and staff members and “will develop recommendations about how Harvard can improve efforts to prevent sexual misconduct and develop insight into these issues,” Harvard President Drew G. Faust wrote in a letter to the Harvard community.

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The development of the task force comes in the midst of a debate on campus regarding the university’s sexual assault policy.

Two people filed a complaint against Harvard on March 28, alleging that its sexual assault policies infringed on Title IX protections. The lead complainant, Emily M. Fox-Penner, 19, is a member of the student group Our Harvard Can Do Better, which provides information resources for survivors of sexual assault.

Fox-Penner said her complaint was filed on behalf of others who have experienced sexual assaults and includes testimony from 10 victims.

The Title IX complaint, the second one filed against Harvard in the last four years, was not mentioned in Faust’s letter.

University spokesman Jeff Neal declined to comment on the complaint on Thursday.

“We have not seen the complaint and we do not comment on such matters,” he said in an e-mail. “However, Harvard, as a University and as a community, takes the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence extremely seriously.”

The complainants are claiming Harvard is not meeting guidelines concerning sexual assaults under Title IX.

Following a 2011 Office for Civil Rights letter outlining new guidelines on sexual assault policies under Title IX, Harvard and other universities began evaluating their sexual violence policies for compliance with federal standards, the Harvard Crimson has reported.

Harvard has also appointed a Title IX officer as well as created an Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. The university is “nearing completion” on a new Title IX policy and set of procedures, Neal said.

Such efforts in the past have often been “cosmetic remedies,” Fox-Penner said, which have not made significant inroads into fixing the problem.

She said that Our Harvard Can Do Better hopes that the task force “represents a new step in Harvard’s approach to sexual assault.”

In 2012, a referendum proposed by the Our Harvard group that urged Harvard College to reexamine its sexual assault policy was supported by 85 percent of students.

Evidence of the debate on Harvard’s role in sexual assault complaints was evident in the Harvard Crimson this week.

On Monday, the paper published an anonymous OpEd piece entitled “Dear Harvard: You Win,” which recounted the aftermath of a 2013 sexual assault. The author said that the university did not address the circumstances of the assault because it did not align with the school’s 1993 official definition of indecent assault.

Another anonymous OpEd, however, was published in the Crimson on Thursday. An alumna who said she was assaulted 14 years ago said Harvard took effective steps to support her and remedy the situation.

Over the past five years, Harvard has consistently reported more sexual assaults per year and more incidents per enrolled student than any other campus in the Boston area, according to a Globe report in February examining sexual assault trends on local college campuses.

Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@globe.com.
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