The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced Thursday it will open an investigation to review Yale’s policies for dealing with sexual harassment and sexual assault. The investigation comes in response to a Title IX complaint filed against the University on Tues., Mar. 15. The complaint, a confidential legal action between the 16 complainants, OCR, and Yale, was signed by both men and women who are current undergraduates and recent graduates of the University, and alleges that Yale’s failure to properly address incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault has resulted in a “hostile environment.” In the words of complainant Hannah Zeavin, BK ’12, this campus climate “precludes women from having the same equal opportunity to the Yale education as their male counterparts.”
Title IX, passed under the Education Amendments of 1972, states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” and offers a course of redress against any institution that discriminates on the basis of sex. Were Yale found to be in violation of Title IX, the most severe punishment Yale would face were it found to be in violation of Title IX is the loss of federal funding.
The complaint is specifically addressed at an Oct. 2010 incident when members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity chanted, “No means yes! Yes means anal!” on Old Campus, but alleges that the Yale administration’s inadequate response to that incident was just one of many instances of the University’s failure to properly address public and private events of sexual harassment and assault. In an email sent out to the Yale community Friday evening, Dean Miller said the administration had received “verbal notification” from OCR of the complaint and that “Yale will respond fully to the investigation and cooperate with the Office of Civil Rights.”
She wrote: “Yale does not and will not tolerate sexual harassment, and seeks to build an environment that is supportive of women and of men, and of people of all gender and sexual identities. Yale is notable, in fact, for the extraordinary number and range of initiatives, programs of study, working groups, faculty and student organizations, and administrative offices devoted to the advancement of women and women’s issues.”
Alexandra Brodsky, DC ’12, says that she very much appreciates Miller’s promise that Yale will cooperate fully with the investigation but adds, “It’s the quality of the response that matters.” She continued, “I have a different definition of zero tolerance than Dean Miller. Zero tolerance for me means that if you rape someone you are expelled,” citing the fact that of the three students found guilty of sexual assault by ExComm in recent years, two were put on probation and one was suspended for a semester. “Ultimately nothing is going to speak as powerfully as disciplinary action to harassment and assault,” says Brodsky.
According to its signatories, the decision to file a Title IX complaint has been a long time coming. “This certainly isn’t a new idea—this is something that has been discussed over the years,” says Alexandra Brodsky, DC ’12, another complainant. In explaining the students’ decision to resort to measures outside the Yale community, she notes, “This comes from the feeling that people who care about these issues on this campus have tried all the other avenues. I don’t think that Yale can feign surprise.”
This is not the first time Title IX has been used against Yale. In a 1977 case called Alexander v. Yale, four female undergraduates and one male assistant professor filed a suit against Yale, alleging that repeated “quid pro quo” sexual harassment by male professors barred female students access to the same quality of education as their male peers. The hallmark case marked the first time that sexual harassment was legally perceived to be a form of sex discrimination. Like in the 1977 case, the current complainants are not seeking damages from the University.
In 1976, Title IX was used against Yale again when the Women’s Crew team walked into the athletic director’s office, armed with a New York Times reporter and stripped down to reveal “Title IX” written on their breasts and backs. They were protesting for equal funding, and they got it.
In response to Alexander v. Yale the following year, the University created the Grievance Board for Student Complaints of Sexual Harassment, which still functions as the primary channel for sexual harassment complaints today. Though the signatories cite the formation of the Board as a step in the right direction, Brodsky cautions that its current mode of functioning is “dangerously flawed.” Zeavin echoes this sentiment: “Many of the people who have dealt with the Board have not been satisfied with the attention given to their personal cases.”
One of the primary criticisms of the Board—and of the way Yale handles allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault in general—is the propensity to deal with cases quietly and internally. The complainants are also troubled by the University’s tendency to shy away from disciplining the perpetrators, in favor of placing the cases under bureaucratic review. The Report of the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Education and Prevention, commissioned after last fall’s DKE incident, reads, “Given the unwillingness of the majority of victims to bring charges against their perceived assailants, we must presume that the majority of perpetrators will remain on campus without disciplinary action.” Ahn responds, “The report takes as a given that the majority of students who commit these offenses will not be disciplined. This to me is a shocking premise. It’s been implicit in Yale’s past responses to sexual harassment and assault, but here it is, spelled out in a report that was initially supposed to address these concerns.”
A member of the Yale School of Medicine’s Grievance Board of Sexual Harassment, who wished to remain anonymous, reiterates the complainants’ discontent with the seeming aversion to discipline those accused of sexual harassment and assault: “I feel strongly—and I know many other students do as well—that the progress on this front has been attenuated by the administration’s failure to bring true accountability into the picture. The shortcoming of the administration’s response to date has been their failure to recognize that the real and perceived lack of disciplinary consequences for perpetrators plays an important role in maintaining the very hostile environment all of their other efforts are attempting to improve.”
“There’s this idea that it should stay all within the family, that Mom and Dad will take care of it and quietly reconcile it,” says Brodsky. “They treat cases like they’re these tiny skirmishes between brothers and sisters at Yale.” While Brodsky recognizes that not every sexual assault victim would want to turn to the law, she emphasizes that it is essential students know about and have access to a legal option. Presca Ahn, BR ‘10, says, “Getting a rape kit and legal recourse outside of Yale is not something that is well-advertised as an option to students.”
Zeavin, too, places utmost importance on the availability of “all options for redress” and says, “Every student is entitled to a good advocate who can recommend a program that is right for them, even if all they want is mental health counsel or physical health counsel. And should they want to go to court in the state of Connecticut, that option should also be made available.” The policy of dealing with sexual assault allegations “in house” can lead to an aversion to pursuing legal remedies. “I think a lot of people who report first through the University end up sucked into Yale’s internal labyrinth of reporting mechanisms,” says Brodsky.
The signatories also cite what they consider the University’s unwillingness to sufficiently prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence as one of their primary grievances. Ahn says, “Plagiarism is something people are expelled or suspended for, but there seems to be a near-infinite tolerance for rape.”
“Yale deliberately shields those who commit sexual harassment and rape from both the public eye and from the consequences of their actions,” says Zeavin, who is distressed by the continued presence on campus of those who have been accused of sexual assault. “You cannot imagine what it is like to sit in class with the person who raped your best friend.”
In the complaint itself, personal testimonies of five students are presented as evidence, alongside accounts of recent high profile instances of sexual harassment on campus. Though the latest instance—misogynistic chanting by Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges during an initiation ritual this fall—served as a trigger in the filing of the complaint, it comes in a long line of well-publicized cases. In 2005, fraternity members stole t-shirts emblazoned with the testimonies of sexual assault survivors from the Clothesline Project, a nationwide program that addresses violence against women. In 2008, Zeta Psi pledges were photographed holding a sign emblazoned with “We Love Yale Sluts” outside of the Women’s Center. Though the Center threatened to sue on the grounds of sexual harassment, the case ultimately never materialized. In 2009, a crude email entitled the “Preseason Scouting Report,” which ranked incoming female freshmen based on their sexual desirability, was circulated amongst fraternities and male athletic teams. Allegations of sexual assault at an off-campus party hosted by the Pundits last month are not included in the complaint—at the time of filing there were no publicly available facts and an investigation was still pending.
The second half of the complaint is made up of five personal testimonies describing complainants’ personal experience. One complainant who included her testimony says, “After an attempted assault my freshman year, I left school and was hospitalized for two days because I was ill from stress. When I came back I got a D on an exam—up until that point I had been a straight-A student. I stopped taking courses I thought he would be interested in, stopped hanging out with groups of mutual friends and refrained from participating in organizations he was a part of. I suffered panic attacks when I ran into him.”
The testimonies—when coupled with the public incidents of sexual harassment—are intended to serve as evidence that, in its failure to respond sufficiently to allegations of sexual violence, the University has infringed upon the quality of education for its female students. “The important thing to realize is that there are two aspects to Title IX—it covers what happens both inside the classroom and outside the classroom, all of which is encompassed in the university experience,” says Georgia Lill, TD ’13. “If you are sexually assaulted it will have a lasting emotional impact and can have a clear effect on their general ability to achieve in the classroom, to do homework, and to go to class.”
According to Lill, even students who are not direct victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment are still subject to its adverse effects. “It is important to realize that everyone has something to contribute to the University, and if you have a pool of women who cannot contribute, then they are depriving everyone else of valuable experiences,” she says.
It is against this culture that the signatories have brought their complaint. Zeavin is quick to point out that the plaintiffs are not “out to get” Yale. “I really love Yale,” she says. “To do it all over again, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.”
The complainants are hoping not just to change specific components of Yale’s policy, but to fundamentally overhaul how the University administration approaches cases of sexual harassment and assault. Says Ahn, “In the past, Yale has dealt with these things in an opaque, conciliatory manner that—if not intentionally, at least in practice—provides inadequate resolution for victims and sometimes even harms them further.”
Despite her affection for the school, Zeavin believes that OCR will find significant violations of Title IX when they begin their investigation, known as a “Climate Check.” When asked what she hopes to gain from the investigation, Zeavin’s answer is simple. “I would like, for the next 41 years and after that, for the women at Yale not to have to deal with the University as it currently is. We’re going after change,” she says. “We want change.”
—Reporting contributed by Evan Walker-Wells,
cover design by Sam Lee
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