Student comes forward as part of complaint

by Laura Gomez / Beacon Staff and Jackie Tempera / Beacon Staff • October 31, 2013

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Sarita Nadkarni, an Emerson junior, revealed on Tuesday she filed a federal complaint against the college with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The document, submitted earlier this month, said the college violated Title IX, a federal anti-discrimination law, while dealing with students’ sexual assault cases, said Nadkarni.  

She said there are four students involved in the case — sophomore Sarah Tedesco, junior Jillian Doherty, herself, and an anonymous student. Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, confirmed to the Beacon that the Office of Civil Rights recently received three complaints involving Emerson College. 

Nadkarni, a visual and media arts major, said she was raped in her Piano Row dormitory room on March 12, 2013. Her alleged attacker was a non-Emerson student, who her then-roommate signed into the building, she said. 

She said she reported the attack two days later to the Emerson College Police Department, after she attempted to go to the Counseling and Psychological Services center, but found a note on the center’s door saying the counselors were unavailable. 

Nadkarni said she told her story to representatives from ECPD, a Boston Police Department officer, and two BPD detectives. The detectives then took photos of her room and collected some evidence on March 14, she said. This was the last time she heard from them. 

Nadkarni said she never followed up with the case, because she wanted to focus on her coursework. 

“I was trying to take my mind off what happened by throwing myself into my school work,” she said. 

By the end of the semester, Nadkarni said she found herself scrambling to finish her work, and her grades were suffering for it. She said she feared she would lose her Dean’s Scholarship — a $14,000 annual academic award that requires recipients to maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0. 

To avoid losing her scholarship, Nadkarni said she wanted to receive incompletes for her classes, and finish the work over the summer, when she said she could take her time.

According to Emerson’s website, an incomplete grade should be administered when a student has completed most course work, but due to medical reasons or other circumstances, could not finish all of the work before the end of the semester.

To receive an incomplete grade change, a form must be completed by the student, signed by the professor, and submitted to the Registrar. 

Nadkarni said she asked three of her professors for the change. Two permitted it, and one asked for a written notice from Michael Arno, the director of student conduct, who met with her regularly and knew the details of the case. 

When Nadkarni asked Arno in an email, he told her he was not authorized to do this, according to a copy of the email Nadkarni provided to the Beacon. 

“Outside of you communicating your concerns to your professor, I’m not sure what else (if anything) can be done,” he wrote.

He then advised her to speak to Ronald Ludman, the dean of students, according to the message.

Arno declined to comment on the issue, and referred all questions to the Office of Communication and Marketing. 

The college cannot comment on the specifics of Nadkarni’s or any of the other complainants’ cases because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits an educational institution from disclosing personal information about students’ records.

Nadkarni said Ludman wrote to her professors, and the incompletes were eventually issued. She said she submitted all of her work over the summer, and hoped to start this semester anew. 

But on Sept. 11, she said she received the first in a series of emails from the college, informing her she was on academic probation, and was at risk of suspension and losing her scholarship.

“When I got that, it made my heart stop,” she said. 

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

“I thought they were supposed to reach out to me to help me,” said Nadkarni. “But they didn’t.” 

After arguing with administrators, Nadkarni said she was able to receive grades for two of her three classes. One of her professors still hasn’t graded her final project, she said. 

Nadkarni is the third public complainant in the case. Tedesco, a journalism major, and Doherty, a writing, literature, and publishing major, first shared their stories publicly in an Oct. 8 Huffington Post article.  

In response to that story, President M. Lee Pelton sent an email to the community on Oct. 9 explaining the measures the college has recently taken, like the formation of a program called Creating a Culture of Consent and launch of the Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate program. He also announced that Emerson will seek to hire a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Advocate who will commit full-time to supporting victims of sexual assault. 

“The college has made it very clear that it takes allegations of sexual assault very seriously and seeks to respond appropriately to allegations by meeting the provisions of Title IX,” said Pelton in a phone interview with the Beacon after Nadkarni made her case public. 

Pelton said that it is unclear whether the college will receive a copy of the Title IX complaint filed by Tedesco, Doherty, Nadkarni, and the anonymous student.  

Bradshaw said the Office of Civil Rights is currently evaluating the three complaints it received to determine if the allegations are appropriate for investigation.  

Pelton said he is working with the Board of Trustees to select a team that will conduct  an external review to determine if the college’s current policies are in compliance with Title IX.  

“It’s my intent to move forward as soon as possible,” said Pelton, though he couldn’t provide a specific date of when the review will begin.

Nadkarni said she decided to go public about her case because it shows a different side of the issue. 

“It shed a whole new light about how they treat their students academically,” she said. “I had to fight to get these incompletes.” 

Nadkarni said she likes the college’s recent initiatives regarding sexual assault on campus, such as the development of the culture of consent, a Town Hall meeting last week, and the college’s search for a sexual assault advocate, but can’t help but feeling it is disingenuous. 

“I feel like they are doing this to cover their tracks,” she said. “It should’ve been done before the attacks could even happen.”

Spears and Lori Beth Way, a senior advisor to academic affairs, will conduct an internal investigation of the current prevention, education, and training programs, and the advocacy and the support services for students who report  being victim to sexual violence. 

According to Spears, the internal review will be completed by March.

“I think it takes courage for any of these students to express concern about the college’s response,” said Spears. 

On Nov. 13 , Way will hold a Lunch and Learn event to discuss myths and truths on sexual assault, and what to say and what not to say to people who reveal they have been assaulted. The event will take place in the Multipurpose Room at noon and is open on the community. 

Andrew Tiedemann, vice president for communications and marketing, said that his office, which manages Emerson’s website, will launch a new page on the site in two weeks with materials regarding sexual assault, including resources available to the community and tools for creating a culture of consent.