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New Harvard Sexual Assault Rules Spark Debate

FILE - Vice President Joe Biden consoles Madeleine Smith after she recounted her story of being a rape victim while a student at Harvard University.

FILE - Vice President Joe Biden consoles Madeleine Smith after she recounted her story of being a rape victim while a student at Harvard University.

A move by Harvard Law School to modify its rules for investigating sexual assaults on campus has renewed a debate over efforts to protect student victims versus providing fair hearings for the accused.

The issue of sexual assault on U.S. college campuses has become a major subject of debate over the past few months. Recently, Harvard Law School reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to adopt a lower burden of proof to investigate cases of sexual harassment and violence.

The new rules are supported by some, while others say the new policy lacks basic elements of fairness.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced in December that it had found Harvard Law School in violation of Title IX, a federal law that bars gender discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding.

The Department of Education launched the investigation mainly because Harvard law students had complained about this issue before. Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the civil rights office, says the school's procedures did not satisfy the legal requirement for prompt and efficient investigations.

"The ultimate findings we reached were that the law school had been using an inappropriate standard for review when investigating allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence. They also had not ensured training for personnel who would be involved in investigating complaints," said Lhamon.

Harvard Law School had been using what the federal government says is an outdated “clear and convincing standard” threshold, which requires a 75 percent chance that an attack took place.

On the same day the results were released, Harvard agreed to adopt a lower burden of proof, called a “preponderance of the evidence,” which requires a little more than 50 percent chance that a student was attacked.

Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, said the agreement recognizes the law school has already taken steps to redress identified shortcomings and foster a learning environment in which everyone is free from sexual misconduct.

Some are applauding the new rules. Wendy Murphy, an attorney and adjunct professor at the New England School of Law, says the change at Harvard is important because the university is seen as a leader.

"If Harvard is held to account and changes its policies in a way that expresses women’s full equality and a commitment to respect for their safety on campus, that reverberates very quickly and effectively, because other schools recognize Harvard as a leader not only in terms of substantive knowledge but also as an institution," said Murphy.

But not everyone is supportive of the changes. A letter from 28 Harvard law professors criticized the new procedures for lacking the basic elements of fairness and due process protections for students accused of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet says many are worried about "the vagueness of the language and the failure to protect consensual conduct that we think puts students at undue risk."

Recent news stories have increased public interest about the issue of sexual assault on college campuses , which is likely to be debated for some time.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Mandarin service.