A town hall forum to discuss sexual assault on October 21 ended with students pledging with Emerson President Lee Pelton to promote a positive atmosphere of acceptance, peace, and understanding as the College continues to examine ways it can improve responses to sexual assault allegations.
“Show me an organization that says it does not need to improve and I will show you an organization that will never improve,” Pelton said during the forum, held at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. “Light, not darkness, will always show us the way.”
“Sexual assault occurs too often on American college campuses,” Pelton said, “and, as a result, it has done immeasurable harm to students here and elsewhere, while eroding our capacity to function as a learning community devoted to academic excellence.”
Pelton spoke of several initiatives that Emerson is taking to address the issue of sexual assault, including authorizing an external review to see if the College’s policies and procedures are in compliance with Title IX and related laws. The independent reviewers will work with Sylvia Spears, vice president for diversity and inclusion; and Lori Beth Way, senior advisor to Academic Affairs, who has extensive experience in Title IX initiatives.
“Sexual assault happens everywhere,” said Way, who was the project director of a three–year U.S. Department of Justice grant to reduce and respond to sexual assault, stalking, and intimate partner violence, in a consortium of two colleges. “Society, including the criminal justice system, has not adequately addressed the problem. With the help of concerned students, colleges and universities are taking the lead in reducing and responding to sexual assault. With your help, we will do so here at Emerson College.”
Emerson’s newly instituted Creating a Culture of Consent program will provide valuable information related to the prevention of sexual assault as well as options and resources for survivors.
Additionally, Emerson will hire a campus sexual assault advocate who will provide advocacy and support for students who have experienced sexual assault as well as oversee the College’s programs to respond to and prevent sexual assault.
Pelton also announced the creation of the Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate (SASA) program to provide more effective response, support, and guidance for students who report a sexual assault.
Pelton said that, despite new educational and awareness programs at Emerson, more sexual assaults are being reported because “we have begun the process of creating a safer environment for students to report allegations of sexual assault, incidents that we know from credible data are grossly underreported.”
“Despite the effectiveness of our efforts in this area, I have pledged to do more. And we will,” Pelton said.
Elise Harrison, director of Counseling and Psychological Services, explained the range of campus options available to survivors of sexual assault, and stressed the need for friends of survivors to be understanding and supportive.
“It’s not easy to know how to support a friend,” Harrison said. “When someone is sexually assaulted, they’ve lost control over their body. It’s essential they be allowed to take control of the process in the aftermath.”
During a question and answer period, Christina Marín, assistant professor of Performing Arts, asked the panel of administrators if faculty, staff, and students would be represented in the search committee for the sexual assault advocate.
Spears answered that the search committee has not yet been formed, but those groups would be represented during the search for candidates. The position has been posted online.
“All of us,” Spears said, “intend for that search to be a process in which all members of the community can participate and feel confident in being part of the selection process.”
Carole Simpson, senior leader-in-residence of the Journalism Department, expressed concern that, traditionally, institutions have not thoroughly educated men on issues of sexual assault.
“Why is it that the focus is always on the woman?” Simpson asked. “Watch the way you dress. Don’t be out late with somebody. All the attention is on what women do. There is nothing about what men should not do.”
Pelton responded: “We’ve made a pledge to do exactly what you’re talking about,” he said, “and not engage in any kind of victim blaming, and ‘this is a woman’s issue.’”
“There’s another movement in this country, and it’s a men’s movement,” Spears said. “There are more and more men gathering together as allies to women on their campuses to talk about what is masculinity…I would challenge the men on our campus—faculty, staff, and students—to think about what is Emerson’s version of that men’s movement.”
Several respondents pointed out that men are also subjected to sexual assaults, and that sexual assaults can occur involving individuals who are the same sex, transgendered, or of the opposite sex.
Others questioned how allegations are taken to outside authorities; how the internal process works; what the role of the Title IX coordinator is; how to handle situations in which both the alleged assailant and the survivor are your friends; the perceived need for additional counselors; and the desire for additional forums and faculty involvement to raise the visibility of what services are already available at Emerson.
Pelton concluded the meeting by asking students, faculty, and staff to join him in completing the statement: “Emerson stands.” Pelton said, “Complete the statement in a way that works for you. Emerson stands for supporting the survivors of sexual assault. Emerson stands for avoiding blaming the victim. Emerson stands for doing more and being better in responding to allegations of sexual assault.”
Pelton then produced a purple wristband bearing the words “Emerson Stands.”
“These bands are available to you,” he said. “I plan on wearing one. You do not have to. But if you choose to, then you will be showing your solidarity with the community on our pledge to address this issue.”