Pelton unveils restructured sexual assault prevention, response program

by Rebecca Fiore / Beacon Staff • September 2, 2014

President M. Lee Pelton discussed Emerson's new effort to reform on-campus sexual assault prevention and response.
President M. Lee Pelton discussed Emerson's new effort to reform on-campus sexual assault prevention and response.

Emerson College announced that it has created its first comprehensive sexual misconduct policy, as part of a new program designed to prevent sexual assaults and reform the school’s handling of future cases.

These changes, which were announced in an email from President M. Lee Pelton Tuesday, come almost a year after three Emerson students filed a federal Title IX complaint with the Department of Education, alleging the college mishandled their sexual assault cases. Soon after, Emerson commissioned an internal review of its policies on sexual assault response and prevention, led by Sylvia Spears, vice president for diversity and inclusion. The college also contracted Margolis Healy & Associates, a professional services firm that specializes in campus safety, to perform an external review. The school has said neither review was ordered in response to the federal complaint.

This new program is based on recommendations from both reviews, according to Pelton’s email. Pelton wrote that the new program will focus on five areas: providing care and support to survivors; preventing sexual assault through education; adjudicating complaints; enhancing the training for faculty, staff, and students; and conducting campus climate surveys every two years. 

Sarita Nadkarni, one of three students who filed a federal Title IX complaint in October 2013, said she is happy to see the college take steps toward combating sexual assault, but she wishes she had been part of the process. 

“The thing that is still bugging me is that no one has ever actually contacted us. They are just rebounding. If this rebound created this program then that’s great,” said the senior visual and media arts major. “I want to be a part of it as well.”

In an interview with the Beacon, Pelton said the program originates from an effort that started in 2011.

“We doubled those efforts in the spring of 2013,” he said. “The national discourse has quickened the pace.”

The college has, for the first time, created a specific sexual misconduct policy as part of the program. 

“In the past, certainly sexual misconduct was prohibited on our campus,” Spears said in an interview, “but it was embedded in our sexual harassment policy and non-discrimination policy.” 

The new policy defines “consent” and outlines the rights survivors have, from date of report through resolution, Spears said. 

Emerson received further attention for its handling of sexual assault cases again last month when a former student, Jillian Doherty, filed a federal lawsuit against the college and four administrators, including Pelton. The school has not yet filed a response in this case. 

Mary-Kate Carr, a sophomore visual and media arts major, said colleges like  Emerson seem to  take action only after students speak out. 

“A lot of colleges should have done more to begin with.”

The other two students involved in the Title IX complaint, Doherty and Sarah Tedesco, could not be reached for immediate comment. 

In providing care and support for survivors, the college plans to search for a survivor advocate, and someone to fill the position of associate vice president and Title IX & Clery Act coordinator. The two positions will work with Melanie Matson, director of violence prevention and response/survivor advocate, and Spears, respectively. 

The survivor advocate interviews — which will include open sessions for students, faculty, and staff — started this week. No students attended besides a Beacon reporter. A hiring decision will be made by mid-semester, Spears said, and the associate vice president and Title IX & Clery Act coordinator interviews will not start until November. The college also invited students to participate in the process to hire the position for which Matson was eventually selected, but only a handful attended the various meetings last spring.

As a part of the program, Emerson launched a website for the Office of Violence Prevention and Response. A new initiative, Emerson STANDS — Stand Together-Act Now-Do Something — will encourage students to step in during certain social settings, according to the official press release. 

“It is the case that if we can reduce or address the small fraction of repeat offenders then we can have an enormous impact on sexual assault and violence on campus,” he told the Beacon. “Part of the thinking of changing the climate with the STANDS program is intervening before sexual assault occurs.” 

Pelton said the new program’s website is meant to be helpful for everyone in the Emerson community.

“All of us have a role to play. We are all implicated in this issue because if it is permitted to grow and fester, then it undermines a core activity of learning.”

The plan also aims to enhance the sexual assault prevention training for students, staff, and faculty members. Spears said both resident assistants and orientation leaders had a significant amount of training this year as part of the plan. 

“RAs are among about a group of 400 or more that are considered campus security authorities, which means they are responsible for the students,” Spears said.

Spears said there were changes to this fall’s orientation to ensure that incoming students understood what consent is, and how they can support one another. 

“As we make progress in refining our training programs throughout the year, we will continue to enhance and adjust the orientation training,” she said. 

Sophomore Bridget Kiernan said she feels comfortable on campus. 

“I do remember being told about [sexual assault prevention] during orientation,” said the visual and media arts major. “I feel like we are on a very safe campus.”

Pelton said the plan is forward-thinking, and could be a model for other colleges. 

“We have to be open to improvement,” he said. 


Updated on Sept. 4 for the print edition.