The US Department of Education announced Tuesday that Harvard Law School had failed to respond properly to two students’ complaints of sexual assault, and violated federal rules governing how sexual harassment and assault complaints are handled.
In response, Harvard agreed to change its policies to bring them in compliance with federal Title IX regulations, which require gender equity at educational institutions that receive federal funding.
Advocates said the case will reverberate beyond Cambridge. The federal investigation of Harvard began with a complaint filed in 2010 that some credit with helping to spark the national discussion and reevaluation of university policies regarding sexual violence.
“That’s a very big message to a very big school, that no one will be spared the enforcement of Title IX,” said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Boston-based Victim Rights Law Center, which has represented college students in sexual assault cases. “I think that every time one of these compliance decisions is released, it sends a shock wave across the country for schools nationally to wake up, and to start understanding that this is not going away, and they’re basically being challenged to act.”
The violation was announced amid intense national scrutiny of sexual harassment and assault policies. Dozens of colleges nationwide — including 11 in Massachusetts — face federal Title IX inquiries amid an urgent push by the federal government and victims’ advocates for schools to overhaul how they handle complaints.
Last spring, Tufts University was found in violation over its handling of a 2010 sexual assault allegation.
For Harvard, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights evaluated the law school’s policies and procedures and also examined sexual assault complaints filed since 2005. There were two cases in that time period.
The investigation found “significant delays” that meant one case dragged out for more than a year. In that case, the accused student was given a supplemental hearing with a lawyer that led to the reversal of a decision to expel the student. The student who made the complaint was not allowed to participate in the appeal process.
“As a result, the Law School failed to provide an equal opportunity for both parties . . . and, as such, the complainant was not provided an adequate, reliable, and impartial investigation of that sexual assault complaint,” Joel Berner, regional director of the Office for Civil Rights of the Education Department, wrote in a letter to law school dean Martha C. Minow.
S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, said the case is important because it helped spur a call for clear guidelines on Title IX and sexual harassment policies that has “completely changed the landscape of how higher education addresses sexual violence.”
Wendy Murphy, an attorney and adjunct professor at New England Law who said she filed the initial complaint with the Department of Education in 2010, said she was pleased with Tuesday’s outcome, and with the substantial progress that Harvard has made in recent years.
“What’s great about the decision is that it is very detailed about where the problem areas were,” Murphy said. That means other schools can learn from reading the decision where their own procedures may need to be revised, she said.
Harvard responded to the finding with a statement.
“As the conversation about sexual assault at colleges and universities spread to campuses across the nation, Harvard recognized that, like many peer institutions around the country, we could and should do more,’’ a Harvard statement said.
In July, Harvard announced sweeping changes of its policies for handling reports of sexual assaults and harassment. The university created a centralized office to investigate allegations and adopted rules that would apply across each of its 13 schools to make the system more consistent.
In determining whether sexual assault or harassment occurred, Harvard has adopted a “preponderance of evidence” standard.
That is the approach required by the Education Department, and was not the procedure in place at the Law School when both of the sexual assault complaints were made.
“This voluntary resolution agreement approves and enshrines many of the proactive changes Harvard has made in recent years,’’ the university said in its statement. “In the coming months and years, [Harvard Law School] and the University will continue the critical work of preventing sexual harassment and assault among our students, faculty and staff, and responding effectively when incidents do occur.”
The agreement does not resolve a pending investigation of Harvard College and its response to sexual assault and harassment complaints by undergraduates, the federal agency said.
The agreement announced Tuesday includes various requirements, including increased training for staff and the sharing of information between campus police and the university.
Victims should be told that they can pursue a criminal investigation and a Title IX investigation at the Law School at the same time.
The Department of Education letter “shows that Harvard has violated Title IX and needs to comply with the law, but we hope the University goes beyond compliance and becomes a leader on this issue,” MaryRose Mazzola, a Kennedy School student and member of the activist group Harvard Students Demand Respect.
Last fall, a group of current and former Harvard law school professors criticized university officials for allegedly bowing to federal pressure with its sexual assault policy, accusing the school of “jettisoning balance and fairness in the rush to appease certain federal administrative officials.”