Emerson Community Letter

Dear Emerson Community,

No doubt, many of you have read or heard about a recent article in the Huffington Post regarding a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that Emerson College’s handling of sexual assaults violates the federal gender equity law Title IX. While privacy considerations prevent me from commenting on the specific contents of the article, there is, nevertheless, much that I can and wish to say.

In March 2013, I wrote the following email (excerpted below) regarding a sexual assault report and the actions that the College planned to take to raise awareness about sexual assault, improve its response to sexual assault and provide increased support for sexual assault survivors.

Dear Emerson students, faculty, and staff,

During the past three days, several students have raised concerns on social media and through an organized letter-writing campaign addressed to me and others about the College’s response to a specific alleged sexual assault that took place off campus last October—and others have raised questions about the College’s response to incidents of sexual assault in general…

The College takes all reports of sexual assault very seriously. We offer counseling and support for students through our Counseling Center and the Center for Health and Wellness. The College supports the prosecution of sexual assailants to the fullest extent of the law, and as expressed in our student code of conduct.

Emerson College has a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), led by the Dean of Students, which includes members of the ECPD, the Counseling Center, the Center for Health and Wellness, the Department of Housing and Residence Life, Human Resources, and the Office of the General Counsel.

I have requested the office of the Dean of Students to review our current sexual assault support programs and adjudication process to ensure that each is functioning effectively on behalf of our students and meeting the very high expectations of excellence we hold for all College programs.

While student privacy concerns and legal obligations prevent the College from making public the specific details of sexual assault investigations, every reported incident is treated seriously through our investigatory and judicial systems.

Sadly, sexual assault occurs too frequently on American college campuses and we recognize that such incidents are under reported for a variety of reasons. Therefore, we encourage any student who has been assaulted to come forward immediately and report the incident to the College and to the appropriate police department.

In all such incidents, our utmost concern is for the health, safety, and well being of our students.

Lee Pelton

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.

Subsequent to my spring letter, the College, in partnership with the Emerson Stopping Sexual Assault student group, sponsored a well-attended panel discussion, which focused on preventing sexual assault, particularly at Emerson College.

Beginning this fall, the College has taken additional measures, which include, most prominently, a program to establish a culture of consent in our student community through a clearly expressed and mutually understood agreement before engaging in any sexual behavior. The new Creating a Culture of Consent provides valuable information related to the prevention of sexual assault as well as options and resources for survivors of sexual assault.

The College also recently announced the launch of a Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate (SASA) initiative, whose goal will be to create a campus-based advocacy group to provide more effective response, support and guidance for students who have experienced a sexual assault. Earlier in the fall semester enhanced sexual assault response training modules were delivered during Resident Assistant, Conduct Board and Title IX investigator training sessions.

Other measures include increasing sexual assault awareness in our residence halls and efforts to strengthen our Rape Aggression Defense program.

Incidents of sexual assault are often highly complex and difficult to resolve in College communities that do not benefit from the investigatory and adjudicative resources available in criminal legal proceedings. Nevertheless, there are measures that we can take that will have the effect of strengthening support for our students, providing clearer paths of adjudication and resolution, while enhancing students’ sense of control and self-worth through a process that is too often fractured, confusing and emotionally challenging.

We can and we will do better.

Towards this end, the College will begin immediately a search for a Sexual Assault Advocate, who will provide advocacy and support for students who have experienced sexual assault. She/he will also oversee the College's programs to respond to and prevent sexual assault.

Additionally, I have asked Dr. Sylvia Spears, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, and Professor Lori Beth Way, Senior Advisor to Academic Affairs for Undergraduate Education, to lead an independent review of the College’s current response to reports of sexual assault. I’ve asked them to review Emerson’s sexual assault programs as well as best practices at other colleges and universities, paying particular attention to:

  • Policies and procedures, including the step-by-step responses to a student report of sexual assault
  • Prevention, education and training programs;
  • Advocacy and support programs;
  • Judicial processes; and
  • Coordination of services, including the organizational structure.

I’ve asked Dr. Spears and Professor Way to provide me with a report documenting their findings and recommendations to improve our current efforts and practices to respond to and prevent sexual assault no later than March 2014.

Finally, I want to be in conversation with you as soon as possible about how we might renew with purpose our commitment to live up to the important values that undergird our community. The sexual assault issues that I wrote about to you last spring as well as incidents of racist, anti-Semitic and discriminatory speech written on the walls of various places on campus are corrosive. They do great violence to our educational community.

I want to have this conversation with you after we return from the long holiday weekend at a location, date and time that I will announce within the next few days.

Our meeting together will be a call to action, a call to stand united with renewed commitment to be our very best selves. This is a call to stand together, a call to say together with a single, clear, crystalline voice that we have had enough of the acts that hurt and destroy the fabric of our College. Let us challenge, beginning with ourselves, one another to accept the call to greatness – for this is what it is – with urgency and an abundance of care for all.

Thank you.