Task force members set goals for Title IX review

by Ian Sutherland / Beacon Correspondent • January 30, 2014

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Sylvia Spears is leading the internal review team.
Sylvia Spears is leading the internal review team.

An internal college task force has begun to evaluate Emerson’s policies on sexual assault response and prevention, meeting twice since December and defining its goals for the review.

Sylvia Spears, vice president for diversity and inclusion, is heading the team and said it will meet once a week. Its goals, she said, are to evaluate how Emerson has previously treated the issue of sexual assault, from prevention to treatment for survivors, and then come up with recommendations for improvement.

“Reports are helpful and provide guidance,” said Spears, “but reports without action mean no change.”

The team will also be working closely with Margolis Healy & Associates, the external firm selected in November to evaluate the college’s compliance with Title IX, a federal anti-discrimination law.

“It’s going to be really essential for us to work hand-in-hand with Margolis Healy because they certainly have a depth of expertise that we don’t have,” said Spears. “We know the context, so it’s a really good collaborative relationship.”

Spears’ team will present its observations and action plan to President M. Lee Pelton and a committee of trustees by the end of March. The plan, said Spears, will incorporate recommendations from both the internal and external reviewers, and go beyond filling the letter of legal requirements. 

Margolis Healy will also produce an independent evaluation and present it to Pelton and the Board of Trustee’s committee on sexual assault. 

The internal review was formed in response to the sexual assault reports that gained publicity in October, when Emerson students Sarah Tedesco, Jillian Doherty, and Sarita Nadkarni filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, reporting that Emerson’s response to their alleged sexual assaults violated Title IX. The OCR also announced in December that it will investigate these student’s complaints. 

Spears said these students were brave in using their voices to bring awareness to their situation, and that correspondence has been planned between her review team and Tedesco and Doherty.

Almost two weeks after the complaints from Tedesco, Doherty, and Nadkarni were made public, Pelton invited the Emerson community to a town hall meeting, where he and other administration members, including Spears, spoke on the recent events, and issues related to sexual assault, and encouraged students to express their concerns and questions. It was there that he announced Emerson would be forming an internal review team under the direction of Spears and Lori Beth Way, senior advisor to academic affairs, and that the college would be hiring an outside firm to conduct an impartial review.

Freshman Chantelle Bacigalupo said she first heard about the review team when she attended Pelton’s October town hall meeting. Bacigalupo, a journalism major, said she hopes this team will pay attention to the perpetrators of sexual assault.

“They should not only focus on just the victim and finding counsel for him or her, but also looking into the motivation and background of the person who committed the crime,” Bacigalupo said.

Some students said they are satisfied with the way the school has handled the federal investigation.

“Personally, I’m happy the school addressed it the way they did,” said Sarah Erkert, a senior theater education major. “I have had experience with a professor who is on the review board who I admire greatly and I trust his opinion. I’m excited to see good staff and faculty working on the case.” 

Alexandria Ellison, a freshman political communication major, said she is satisfied with the school’s progress, but thinks the college should have classes on consent. 

“From what I have seen I feel that the school is moving in the right direction and confident in doing so,” said Ellison. “Sexual assault still has a bad stigma. Most of the [resident assistants] and [resident directors] are very helpful, but certain components could be worked out more.”

Spears said she is hopeful other student concerns can be addressed with her review team. 

“We’ve broken [the mission] down into what the scope of the college’s response is, what should it be, what do we do about reporting, what do we do in terms of resources, and what the accommodations are — whether they’re academic or housing — that should be in place for survivors,” Spears said. 

The action plan, according to Spears, will state what the grievance procedures should be, how the community fit into the judicial process, and what should be done about prevention. 

The internal review team is optimistic about their collaboration with Margolis Healy, said Spears. She and her team are open to discussion, questions, and critiques from the Emerson community.

“We know it’s important to have community engagement and community perspective, because we can more easily figure out [what] we’re doing well and in what areas we can improve education and response,” Spears said. “Then we can make an effective action plan.” 

Deputy News Editor Rebecca Fiore contributed to this report.