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Harvard Graduate Sues School Over Handling Of Reported Sexual Assault

Alyssa Leader filed the lawsuit in federal court in Massachusetts on Tuesday.

Posted on February 17, 2016, at 4:49 p.m. ET

Alyssa Leader
Elise Amendola / AP

Alyssa Leader

A Harvard graduate filed a lawsuit against the university claiming administrators did nothing to stop the man she said sexually assaulted her from retaliating against her.

Alyssa Leader filed the lawsuit against the school Tuesday in Massachusetts federal court, saying Harvard violated the federal gender equality law known as Title IX by showing "deliberate indifference" to her reports of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment.

Leader and the man — referred to as John Doe in the lawsuit — dated for about one year from 2013 to 2014. According to the lawsuit, Doe would pressure Leader to have sex during what she described as an abusive relationship. When she refused, he grew violent, at times slamming doors and aggressively striking furniture including a metal bureau, a fan, and a porcelain sink.

Harvard began an investigation in February 2015, after Leader filed a formal school complaint against Doe for abuse, sexual assault, and harassment, according to the suit.

On several occasions during the investigation she asked that Doe – who lived in the same dormitory as her– to be moved, but her request was denied. Leader alleges in the lawsuit that she was forced to encounter her abuser and his friends daily in the dorm.

"She went to Harvard seeking protection, seeking help," Irwin Zalkin, Leader's lawyer, said during a news conference Wednesday. "She expected the university would take action and protect her safety at the school. She was wrong."

A spokesperson for Harvard University said the school does not comment on pending litigation.

"Harvard responds fairly and purposefully to every allegation of sexual assault among its students, faculty, and staff," the statement said. "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."

Harvard College is currently under federal investigation for claims that the university mishandled cases of sexual violence.

Leader said Wednesday that after she reported the assault she was living "in constant fear" of Doe. According to the lawsuit, he would show up at her workplace, made threatening comments to her in the dining hall, and spoke widely about the investigation with people on campus.

She claims in the lawsuit that she was also harassed by Doe's friends, who would stand outside her workplace so she would have to pass them when she left.

She reported the subsequent harassment and her fear to the university, but they still refused to move him from the dorm, according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Harvard investigators questioned how the conduct constituted harassment as it occurred in public.

She began carrying pepper spray in her purse and used furniture to barricade doors when she was alone in a room, she said at the news conference. According to the lawsuit, her grades began to drop. She said she felt ostracized and barred from attending social events. She ultimately stopped sleeping in her dorm room out of fear.

Seeing that the school investigation was not progressing, Leader obtained a restraining order from a state court against Doe in April 2015 – a month before the two were set to graduate. The same day she was granted the restraining order, Harvard moved Doe out of the dormitory they lived in.

"I stood in the middle of the quad and cried," she said at the news conference about the day Doe was moved out of the dorm. "Finally, I felt safe, but it was too little too late."

Leader alleges in her lawsuit that Harvard did not inform her of her right to pursue a criminal case or a restraining order, which Title IX mandates. She claims they failed to discuss other measures such as changes in her class schedule, leaves of absence, or increased monitoring of certain areas of the campus.

According to the lawsuit, Harvard "failed to properly train and educate their employees, including officials, officers, investigators, and adjudicators in appropriate response t o allegations of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and retaliatory conduct, as well as necessary Title IX policies and procedures."

"Title IX requires universities to take action to protect students from ongoing harassment," Zalkin said at the news conference. "While conducing an investigation they have to take action to protect the victim."

According to the lawsuit, Doe admitted to verbally threatening Leader, acting violently during the relationship, showing up at her workplace, and discussing the case with their friends.

In July 2015 – two months after Leader and Doe graduated – Harvard found the man not responsible for sexual assault, abuse, and harassment.

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