Sexual assault prevention programs improving, but sense of belonging mixed

The student component of Emerson’s first climate survey, which polled 1,485 undergraduates and graduates, shows that greatest sources of dissatisfaction are the college’s sexual assault and harassment education programs and a sense of belonging among students of various races.

Less than half of all students who took the survey said they felt the college has given them education and training on the prevention of sexual assault. About two-thirds of first-year students reported they had received the education on this topic, but only a third of seniors said the same.

According to Sylvia Spears, the vice president for diversity and inclusion, this contrast comes from a greater effort to ensure this education this year through the new Violence Prevention and Response office. Spears said Melanie Matson, director of VPR, came to the college in May 2014, and began to improve the college’s training programs.

Megan Kipperman, a senior political communication major and advocate against sexual violence, said upperclassmen often didn’t get any information about what to do if there was a sexual assault on campus. 

Catherine Yamashita, a freshman performing arts major, said that speakers at the Fall 2014 orientation prioritized how to respond to sexual assault or harassment.

“Even though those things stuck with me during orientation, I still wouldn’t really know what to do,” said Yamashita.

Yamashita said that there should be more education on these topics given to students throughout the year, especially to upperclassmen who didn’t have the same orientation experience.

Spears said that as Emerson continues expanding its education on these issues, students will likely feel better about their preparation.

“I’d be disappointed if, two years from now, those numbers didn’t go up,” Spears said. 

When the survey was first annouced in October 2014, President M. Lee Pelton wrote in an email that the survey would be conducted every two years.

The survey also showed that a sense of belonging at Emerson is lower among students of some races than others. Students who are African-American, multiracial, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander responded significantly less positively than other students.

Nyla Wissa, a senior performing arts major, said that groups like Flawless Brown—a theater troupe for women of color that she founded—allow students of color to come together and make each other feel welcome.

“It’s hard to be in a community where you are a minority,” said Wissa.

Junior Sarah Alli said that she is friends with virtually all the nonwhite students at Emerson, just because there are so few of them. 

“We all fit in a room at one point,” said the visual and media arts major.

Alli said that in one class, a professor asked her about growing up attending schools in New York City. The professor then asked her if coming to Emerson had been a culture shock since she was probably used to being in courses with “people of her kind,” which she said she found highly offensive. 

Elizabeth Deonarain, a freshman visual and media arts major, said she feels that many professors and students can be insensitive about racial issues.

Deonarain, a member of Flawless Brown and Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests, said that students often make ignorant comments about race in class, but professors will allow the conversation to continue.

“They let it go on like it’s a dialogue, even though it’s something very offensive,” said Deonarain. “I’ve had to take breaks from classes because such terrible stuff is happening.”

Deonarain said that she thinks incoming students should take a cultural sensitivity class when they come to Emerson. She said this could be incorporated into orientation week, or even a dedicated class for first-year students. Professors would also be required to take this training.

“I expected, coming to such an artsy school like this,” Deonorain said, “that people would be more open-minded.”

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