Facing ongoing complaints of sexual harassment on campus, the Yale School of Medicine will continue to examine existing protocols and implement new procedures for addressing and eliminating incidents of sexual harassment and assault on campus, medical school Dean Robert Alpern said Wednesday.
In an e-mail to the entire medical school community, Alpern sent a report — drafted by an internal Working Group on Sexual Harassment over the past 10 months — that reviewed the administration’s sexual-harassment policies, researched extant procedures at peer institutions and provided a list of ten steps the medical school can take to reduce the recurring problem of sexual harassment.
The report’s recommendations call for an official Dean’s Policy Statement, an annual survey evaluation of sexual harassment, a zero-tolerance policy, increased accountability and increased access to resources like the Sexual Harassment and Assault Resource and Education (SHARE) Center, among other suggestions.
In May 2007, over 150 medical students signed and submitted a letter to the administration, requesting that it conduct a review of the school’s sexual-harassment and assault policies and provide more counseling resources. There were a total of eight specific incidences of sexual assault cited in the 2007 letter. After a series of meetings responding to this letter, the Working Group convened for the first time later that month.
“We were all in agreement that some really serious acts had happened,” Sanjay Basu MED ’10, a member of the Working Group, said. “The issue was what to do about it.”
Before presenting its recommendations, the report includes a review of the current sexual-harassment policy — which the School of Medicine shares with the University as a whole — and the associated procedures.
Currently, students can take allegations of sexual assault to a number of different offices, including the Office of Student Affairs, the Yale University SHARE Center, the Office of the Ombudsman and Peer Advocates, as well as various religious leaders. But the report found there is no centralized location where this list of available resources is collected for students. Students are also not aware of any set procedures administrators are trained to take once they have been informed of an incident.
The committee found that students are unhappy with the current procedures because they feel student reports of sexual harassment are either not believed or not followed up on by the administrators. Students, it found, also fear a breach of confidentiality when they report sexual assault to key YSM personnel.
The document addresses the repeated student concerns that reports of sexual assault will be dismissed or held against them in the future and that resources are inaccessible or unknown. It also introduces new issues, such as the lack of training for the personnel who deal with sexual harassment — including the Office of Student Affairs and the Dean’s Board on Sexual Harassment.
The report concluded that the major problem stems from Yale’s lack of a definitive set of guidelines and policies concerning the reporting and consequences of sexual harassment.
In examining the policies of Yale’s peer institutions, the committee found that medical schools like Stanford, Brown and Johns Hopkins had set concrete guidelines about unacceptable behavior and its consequences, Basu said.
“It became clear that Yale needs to set out and enforce clear disciplinary guidelines and make use of mechanisms to allow students to more easily report incidences of sexual harassment and assault,” he said.
Alpern said he doesn’t think sexual harassment is a greater problem at Yale than anywhere else, though he did acknowledge the greater incidence at hospitals in general.
“In medical schools, it may be a bigger problem especially on the clinical surfaces,” he said. “You have men and women working long, long hours together. They get tired.”
Alpern said many of the resources requested in the recommendations were already available to students, but that are not well publicized to students and faculty, something that he thinks administrators need to do better.
But the issue of sexual harassment on the medical school campus was a significant student concern even before the May 2007 letter.
In winter 2005, the then Associate Dean of Student Affairs Richard Belitsky, now Director of Medical Studies in Psychiatry, formed a committee in reaction to a slew of concerns raised by Yale medical school students about the rampant sexual harassment and assault — particularly targeted at women — they had witnessed or experienced.
An anonymous medical student wrote in the letter that she was inappropriately touched by an attending and did not feel there were adequate resources available to deal with the situation.
“I was frustrated because I knew I would gain nothing by going to the Office of Student Affairs or the Office of Women in Medicine,” she said. “I knew of students that were sexually assaulted and knew that nothing was done about those situations.”
The group of students had written a letter detailing the problems they saw with the existing policies, featuring testimonials by various medical students who had experience with sexual assault. The letter identified obstacles to properly handling sexual-harassment cases, including fear of reporting, lack of resources for students and lack of protection for victims.
The 2005 committee submitted a final report in April 2005, resulting in the implementation of several recommendations, including educating first-year medical students in reporting and preventing incidences of sexual harassment and stressing responsible drinking. But according to the 2008 report, the steps taken after the initial recommendations did not have the desired results and cases of sexual harassment and assault continued to occur.
Merle Waxman, Ombudsperson for the School of Medicine and one of the first people to hear the 2005 group’s grievances, said she thinks the latest recommendations are a good start.
“The best thing we can do is continually re-evaluate policies,” Waxman said. “They shouldn’t be stagnant. There are more women at the Med School than ever before, so we always need to back and look at them.”
Working Group member Serge Kobsa MED ’10 said the report is an important first step, though he said improving the School of Medicine’s sexual-harassment policies will be a long process. He said the creation of the subcommittee would be essential to ensuring the success of the recommendations.
“We didn’t want this to just be a piece of paper that causes a small ruffle and falls by the side,” he said.
Kobsa said a smaller group will be formed to monitor the implementation of the recommendations. The subcommittee will likely include several of the original Working Group members, but will be open to new ones as well.
—Ambika Bhushan contributed reporting.