Students file federal complaint, say college mishandled sexual assault cases

by Laura Gomez / Beacon Staff and Jackie Tempera / Beacon Staff • October 10, 2013

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Sarah Tedesco helped draft a federal complaint filed against the college.
Sarah Tedesco helped draft a federal complaint filed against the college.

A group of Emerson students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights last week, stating the college’s response to alleged sexual assaults violates Title IX, a federal anti-discrimination law, said sophomore Sarah Tedesco and junior Jillian Doherty, who are currently the only public complainants.

Tedesco, a journalism major and a former Beacon staff member, said she was raped by one Emerson student and one Massachusetts Institute of Technology student at an off-campus party on Oct. 12, 2012. When she returned to campus that night, she said she reported the incident to her Resident Assistant Dylan Manderlink, a then-junior interdisciplinary major.

The following evening, Tedesco said she went to the Emerson College Police Department office, where officers recommended she go to a hospital and complete a sexual assault collection test, a typical procedure when filing a police report. The next morning, Oct. 14, Tedesco said she completed the test and filed a case with the Cambridge Police Department.

In December, Tedesco said she followed up with David Haden, the associate dean and director of housing and residence life. 

“[I was told] not to make a big deal out of the fact that this occurred,” she said in an interview with the Beacon. “He said that it was a private matter and its not something I should be so public about.”

According to Title IX regulations, a school that knows about possible sexual harassment incidents must promptly investigate those allegations to determine what occurred, then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.

Haden declined to comment. 

Some Emerson students feel if Tedesco’s allegation is true, the response was unjust. 

“She shouldn’t have been told just to not make it a big deal,” said Billy Finn, senior performing arts major. “I think that’s ridiculous.”

Tedesco said that Little Building Resident Director Caitlin Courtney suggested she close the investigation with the Cambridge Police. 

“She said she thought that because of everything that it would be in my best emotional interest to drop the charges through the Cambridge Police Department,” she said. “She said she thought that it was taking over my life and hurting me emotionally.”

Title IX states a school should notify a complainant of his or her right to file a criminal complaint for sexual assaults, and should not dissuade a victim from doing so. 

The Office of Housing and Residence Life, the department Courtney works in, declined to comment. 

Tedesco said she was emotionally impressionable at the time of Courtney’s suggestion, so she took the advice. She said because of Courtney’s recommendation, she stopped cooperating with police, and the case was left unresolved. Tedesco said there was evidence in her sexual assault collection test connecting the Emerson student who she said attacked her to the rape, but no disciplinary action was taken against the individual by ECPD, the Office of Student Conduct, or the Cambridge Police. Tedesco said this is because she believed that at the time of this revelation, she could not legally share the report with the college because the Cambridge Police case was ongoing. The Cambridge Police could not be reached for immediate comment.

In March, Tedesco said she received a series of threatening emails from the alleged Emerson attacker. She said she reported these messages to ECPD, but officers did not take any action. Later in the month, Tedesco said she was raped again by the same Emerson student while on campus.

Title IX requires a school to take steps to protect complainants as necessary. The school should notify the complainant of his or her options to avoid contact with the alleged perpetrator, according to the regulations, and allow students to change academic or living situations as appropriate.

Shortly after the incident, Tedesco said the college called her parents, and told them of the attack without her consent.

Doherty, the second complainant, said she was raped by an Emerson student in an Emerson dormitory. A year later, in the spring term of 2013, she said she reported her case to the college and an investigation began, conducted by Michael Arno, director of the office of student conduct.

Doherty, a writing, literature, and publishing major, said her alleged attacker was studying abroad through an Emerson program during the investigation.

After Arno’s investigation—which Doherty said included interviews with her, her alleged attacker, and witnesses—the conduct board, a group of three administrative or faculty members, held a hearing to reach a decision.

“I don’t think [Arno] was very thorough,” said Doherty in an interview with the Beacon about the document of the investigation’s findings that Arno presented to the board. “It should be handled with a lot more care and a lot more respect.”

She said Arno let her choose her hearing date: in the summer, conducted via Skype, or the fall term; she chose the former. At the hearing, Doherty said her alleged attacker was ruled not responsible. An appeal hearing will be held next Wednesday, she said. 

Doherty said she thinks that a trained detective should have aided the investigation. 

“I don’t think that someone who is just an administrator should be the person who investigates a rape case,” she said. Doherty said at the time, she did not go to police because she didn’t feel she had sufficient evidence to present to law enforcement.

All people involved in implementing the proper procedures required by Title IX, from the investigation to a hearing decision, must have training or experience in handling complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Alexa Jackson, Emerson’s Title IX coordinator, was not available to comment on which Emerson staff members are trained on proper procedures. 

“I’m really struggling, academically; I’m on academic probation because of the way my grades turned out during the period of the investigation,” said Doherty. 

Title IX says that, depending on the specific nature of the problem, the school can provide remedies for the victim, like arranging for the complainant to retake a course or withdraw from a class without penalty, ensuring that any changes do not adversely affect the complainant’s academic record.

“A lack of attention to details—something that is imperative in a rape investigation— is the reason why my rapist still walks on this campus,” said Doherty. 

Because of these experiences, and their perception of the school’s reluctance to comply with Title IX regulations, Tedesco said she, Doherty, and other students started to consider filing the complaint. 

Tedesco, Doherty, and a group of Emerson students worked with End Rape on Campus, a group that helps students to take federal action, to draft the complaint. According to a press release sent to the Beacon, the complaint was submitted as part of a larger initiative about the mishandling of rape, sexual assault, and other crimes by college and universities.

An August meeting with orientation workers Sharon Duffy, associate dean of students, and Elise Harrison, director of counseling and psychological service, student orientation core staff, and Ronald Ludman, the dean of students, prompted Tedesco to officially file the complaint, she said.

During the meeting, Tedesco and other members of the student organization Emerson Stopping Sexual Assault sat down with the group to discuss orientation and how to move ahead with a sexual assault awareness campaign this semester, she said. When ESSA members tried to bring up the violations of Title IX, Tedesco said Ludman asked for examples. Tedesco said she tried to use examples from her own case, and Ludman told her she could not talk about her own case in a public meeting.

“We tried to bring up systematic investigation problems, they immediately shut us down and said that’s not our primary focus right now,” she said. “So that was really a tipping point because students weren’t seeing what they wanted to be done.” 

Tedesco declined to reveal how many students were involved in the filing. But she said more students were involved in the filing than sexual crimes were reported in the college’s records. 

According to Emerson’s 2013 Clery Act Report—an annual account of crimes reported on or near campus — three forcible sexual offenses were reported in 2012, and two forcible sexual offenses were reported in 2011.

“From January 1, 2013 through today there have been 13 forcible sex offenses reported to the ECPD,” wrote Emerson Police Chief Robert Smith in a statement to the Beacon on Wednesday. He added that these offenses may have happened off campus.

In an interview in March, Smith said only one forcible sexual offense was reported from January to March 2013. 

According to Title IX regulations, if a student files a sexual assault complaint with the school, regardless of where the conduct occurred, the school must process the complaint in accordance with its established procedures. 

According to Ludman in an interview in the spring, Emerson’s policy for victims of rape and sexual assault is to have college administrators investigate the allegations, and simultaneously provide support for the student regardless of the outcome. Then, an appointed administrator and the student develop a plan that best fits the needs of the victim, he said.

Students can also report crimes to any member of the Emerson staff. Then, that staff member is encouraged, but not required, to inform Emerson’s sexual assault team, which consists of Ludman; Jackson, human resources/Title IX coordinator; the general counsel; and representatives from the ECPD, counseling, health and wellness, housing and residence life, according to the Emerson website.

Victims who wish to file a police report can talk to the ECPD, said Ludman. 

Smith said students who file a police report will speak to the officer in charge of the shift to begin an investigation. This consists of a brief interview, concerning where and when the assault took place. 

Students who want to pursue criminal investigations will be put in contact with the police department in the area where the incident occurred, he said.

The story of the complaint first broke in a Huffington Post article on Tuesday night, and was broadcasted to the organization’s over 3,000,000 Twitter followers. On Wednesday evening, President M. Lee Pelton sent the Emerson community an email addressing the allegations.

In the message, Pelton referenced an email he sent in March in response to an email campaign by ESSA club members directed toward the college’s administrators. In the campaign, students asked Pelton, Ludman, and Duffy to take larger steps in protecting Emerson students against sexually violent crimes. 

“As I noted in my March letter, sexual assault occurs too often on college campuses, and it is critically important that we redouble our efforts to combat incidents that harm our students and undermine what we stand for as a commonwealth of learning,” said Pelton in the email. 

Pelton proceeded to outline what the college has done since the March campaign, including hosting a panel discussion with the ESSA student group, constructing a Creating a Culture of Consent booklet, launching a Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate initiative, increasing the availability of Rape Aggression Defense classes, and providing additional training in Title IX requirements.

In an interview with the Beacon, Pelton said he wants to continue to make positive changes.

“We are really focused on making improvements where we can, increasing support and advocacy where it’s needed, and listening and being open to women and men who have the courage to show the college how it can do better,” he said.

In the community email, Pelton named a few changes the college will make in light of the filed complaint. 

The college will look to hire a Sexual Assault Advocate, who will provide support for sexual assault victims and oversee the college’s programs on the matter, he said. 

Sylvia Spears, the vice president for diversity and inclusion, and Lori Beth Way, a senior advisor to academic affairs for undergraduate education, will work on a review of the college’s sexual assault response procedures, he said in the email. This evaluation will be completed no later than March 2014, said Pelton.

“I think the legitimate question is whether or not [the Emerson’s Title IX office] can be improved. I think the easy answer is yes, it can be,” said Pelton in an interview. “The more difficult question is how.”

Pelton said he will host a meeting sometime after the Columbus Day weekend, where students and administrators will discuss sexual assault issues, and the racist, anti-Semitic, and discriminatory graffiti recently found on campus. 

“Our meeting together will be a call to action, a call to stand united with renewed commitment to be our very best selves,” he said in the email. 

Students reacted strongly to the accusations. 

“It’s really, really infuriating,” said Kelly Voke, senior performing arts major. “I’m disappointed and a bit ashamed to be going to a place that can’t handle a situation like this.” 

Doherty said she has observed the disappointment and embarrassment expressed by students towards Emerson, but she thinks students should see this issue differently. 

“Emerson is a great school,” she said, adding that other institutions are struggling to appropriately respond to cases of sexual assault. A 2010 report by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that higher education institutions nationally largely mishandled campus rape cases, and that federal sanctions were weak. 

“Instead of feeling shame, we should feel a sense of community and try to push this issue into the spotlight,” said Doherty.

Pelton said he is proud students are demanding improvement.

“These are women who came forward because they have a love for Emerson,” he said. “And they want it to be a better place for them to live, work, and study.”

The Office for Civil Rights under the Department of Education, is currently closed due to the government shutdown, according to a message on the office’s answering machine. Cases will not be reviewed until the office reopens, said the message. 

Editor-in-Chief Evan Sporer and Assistant News Editor Martha Schick contributed to this report.