Harvard failed to protect a student who claimed she was sexually assaulted and violated federal law, the woman and her legal team said on Wednesday.
Alyssa Leader, a 22-year-old from Harvard College’s graduating class of 2015, spoke to media in Cambridge on Wednesday, announcing a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the university under Title IX, a federal anti-discrimination law.
Leader, originally from Louisiana, said a boyfriend abused her during a yearlong relationship in 2013 and 2014, becoming enraged when she declined to have sex with him.
When she brought complaints to Harvard administrators, she said, the man retaliated by harassing her, and the school did too little to assist her.
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“I reported that I was living in constant fear. I asked for help. They refused to act,” Leader said.
The school dismissed accusations against her alleged assailant in July of 2015, according to the complaint filed this week.
Leader did not seek criminal charges against the man, and her lawyers said the statute of limitations for a criminal case has passed.
But Leader’s complaint has to do with the school’s response to her allegations.
Leader said she was forced to stay in the same residence hall as the ex-boyfriend, having to encounter him frequently in the dorm, Cabot Hall, and at her job at an on-campus café, where the man was a manager.
Her lawyers said the school should have moved the alleged attacker to another residence, and that it could have helped Leader pursue a no contact order to restrict contact between the two, but didn’t.
The lawyers allege that failure to take those actions is a breach of federal law.
University staff were not properly trained and were “deliberately indifferent” to Leader’s concerns, said Irwin Zalkin, of the California-based Zalkin Law Firm, which is representing Leader.
Leader and her legal team seek damages for distress and for impacts on Leader’s life and career, hoping to send a message to the prestigious university.
“It’s been our experience that when institutions are more concerned about their reputation than they are about the protection of their students,” Zalkin said, “the lesson that they learn and the change that is effected seems to have to come from their pocket book. That’s why we’re here.”
The Zalkin Law Firm has “represented hundreds of survivors” of sexual abuse, a release said.
A Harvard spokeswoman said in an email that the school “does not comment on pending litigation.”
In a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon, the university pointed to Title IX policy changes adopted in 2014, and called sexual assault on college campuses "deeply disturbing."
“The continued prevalence of sexual harassment and assault at Harvard and on college campuses across the nation is deeply disturbing," the statement reads. "Harvard responds fairly and purposefully to every allegation of sexual assault among its students, faculty, and staff. In recent years, the University has adopted a new Title IX Policy and Procedures, created a new office to investigate allegations of sexual assault and other forms of harassment, and increased training and resources to both prevent and respond to incidents.”
Title IX, an anti-discrimination law passed in 1972, applies to schools which, like Harvard, receive federal funding. Violating the statute can lead to colleges losing that funding. Title IX has been used at a number of academic institutions in recent years in response to sexual assault cases, including several in Massachusetts.
The Department of Education found in late 2014 that Harvard was in violation of the law. Earlier that year, the school announced new policies, among them creating a new office to conduct investigations, called the Office of Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution. That office investigated Leader’s case, and later found her alleged assailant “not responsible,” according to the complaint.
Speaking to reporters, Leader said she still has nightmares about what happened while she was a student.
She said she felt isolated from her peers, and sometimes intimidated by them, avoided a common dining area and saw a drop in her grades. She said she worried about retaliation, carrying pepper spray and often barricading doors shut when she was in rooms alone.
Outside the school, Leader obtained a restraining order against her alleged assailant in April of 2015, at which point the school moved her ex-boyfriend moved to another dorm, according to the complaint.
Leader said she is not alone in feeling neglected by Harvard’s administration, and said she had heard similar stories from other survivors of abuse.
“It’s time for us to hold Harvard accountable,” she said. “I hope that if I make my voice heard, my nightmare doesn’t have to become one more Harvard student’s reality.”