Letter to Emma Willard School— June 2016

On June 27 of this year I wrote an open letter to my alma mater, Emma Willard School. I did this because the school was being disingenuous in its communications with alumnae as to how the current administration and board of trustees was handling the account of a former student’s rape by a faculty member in 1998.

Since then, more than 1,200 alumnae have gathered in virtual and physical spaces to demand the school make meaningful changes to protect its students. However, many of these alums may not have had the opportunity to read my account of the events of 1998, which as a complement to the bravery of my friend’s public telling of her story, was at the foundation of this gathering of Emma Girls.

In 1998 I didn’t know about a physical assault, so in this open letter to the current head of school, I attested to the information I did know in 1998. The difference is, that with my adult perspective, I was able to condense my memories into a concise accounting of when and how the school was complicit in my friend’s grooming, sexual abuse, and later rape by her soccer coach and history teacher.

I now am personally aware of over 30 accounts of abuse related to at least 15 perpetrators at Emma Willard School since the late 1970s, and know that there are both earlier and more recent cases. This is an institutional failure of women and girls by a school that claims to be a bastion of feminist thinking and female empowerment.

Rape culture must be rooted out in every institution in our society; in our families, schools, athletics, and religious organizations. Emma Willard School must be held to the highest standard of transparency and accountability, because so many women and girls are counting on it. I am re-posting the letter here, so that it can be accessed by any who are interested in bringing Emma into the sunlight.

27 June, 2016
Dr. Susan Groesbeck
Head of School
Emma Willard School
285 Pawling Ave.
Troy, NY 12180
cc: Katherine Sullivan
Dear Dr. Groesbeck,
I am writing to express my disappointment and anger at the way that Emma Willard School has treated the sexual assault complaint against former teacher, Scott Sargent, by former student Katie Sullivan.
As I followed the sexual assault allegations that have surfaced at many of the most elite schools in the country, my memory of the way Ms. Sullivan was treated by the administration at Emma Willard began to bother me more and more. In April of this year I decided to reach out to her, even though we had not communicated directly in many years, and this was the first step in her having the courage to come forward with her story.
As an alumna of Emma Willard (class of 1999) I strongly encourage you and your administration to be forthright and forthcoming with all reasonable requests made my Ms. Sullivan. I know these to include: documentation regarding her withdrawal and any disciplinary measures taken against her in 1998, any documentation regarding Mr. Sargent’s dismissal, including any reference he likely received from Emma Willard staff before going on to teach at other schools, and payment for the costs of her continued participation in psychotherapy for the trauma she experienced. I also urge the school to issue her a formal apology for the distress caused by the actions of Emma Willard administration in 1998. These actions would be a great step toward righting the wrongs that Ms. Sullivan has been forced to live with for the past 20 years.
I clearly remember the events leading up to Ms. Sullivan’s dismissal in 1998. As I have matured to see them from an adult perspective, I have been increasingly troubled by the school’s complicity in Mr. Sargent’s abuse. I would like to make a few salient points:
Mr. Sargent was widely known to have been involved with another student, who graduated in 1996. This was what I would term “common knowledge” at the school during the years I attended. In fact, it is my understanding that the relationship was a primary factor in Mr. Sargent’s divorce from his wife who was also a staff member at the school. The school was negligent and complicit in any sexual misconduct by Mr. Sargent from this point forward by not dismissing Mr. Sargent immediately.
The school became aware of Mr. Sargent’s so-called relationship with Ms. Sullivan sometime in the winter of 1997–98, through graphic and sexually explicit emails that were turned in by another student. Mr. Sargent was thereby removed as a chaperone from a school trip, but was not dismissed from the school at that time. This was well before Ms. Sullivan states that she experienced a forcible assault by Mr. Sargent. The school was negligent and complicit in Ms. Sullivan’s continued abuse because he continued to teach and have access to her.
There was a punitive culture at the school that caused me to not report the inappropriate relationship between Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Sargent, because I felt I needed to protect Ms. Sullivan from the administration. My fears were realized when I was called to give what I can only describe as a deposition against Ms. Sullivan after she damaged the property of another student. Although this was the stated reason for her discipline, the questions I was asked were primarily related to her relationship with Mr. Sargent. In addition, I was threatened by the administration with disciplinary action if I did not ‘tell on’ Ms. Sullivan. My fears were again realized when the administration took action against her.
This culture can again be seen by the treatment of another case where a student became “involved” with another teacher, Scott Barton. When the school became aware of this “relationship” the student was punished and stripped of her awards and student leadership roles, although she was allowed to graduate with her class.
The school did not contact Ms. Sullivan’s parents, forced her to withdraw from school, did not provide her with a diploma, and put her on a bus to New Orleans to live on the dorm-room floor of a male freshman student without any way to support herself. Her admissions to top-tier colleges were revoked as she did not have a high school diploma, and she became homeless and was forced to become an exotic dancer to support herself. The school was negligent and punitive in its treatment of a vulnerable young woman who had experienced a year of sexually coercive and violent behavior while under the school’s care. In short — her life was nearly ruined.
The school stated to the press that they contacted the Troy police in 1998, however I was never contacted to speak to them, even though I was one of the few witnesses that had direct knowledge of the relationship between Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Sargent. Ms. Sullivan states she was never contacted at the time, and when she contacted Troy police after my message to her in April 2016, they stated they had no record of a police report.
Although the school may have learned about the relationship when Ms. Sullivan was past the age of consent in New York, we know that many states have exceptions to age of consent laws when the older party is in a position of power over the younger party. This is current best practice. A sexual relationship between an adult in a position of authority and a teenage girl is always coercive to some degree and never consensual. The school should not hide behind state laws that are antiquated and misogynistic, but should instead position itself as a leader against violence against women and girls.
I would like you to know that I have been in contact with Ms. Sullivan and she has shared with me the emails from your attorney, Ms. Laura Harshbarger. I believe your description of a school that supports students coming forward, and cares for the well-being of women who experienced sexual assault while under its care is entirely disingenuous. I strongly encourage you to make good on these promises, and show with material support that you care about the emotional healing of your alumnae affected by these horrible events.
I expect that Emma Willard School live up to its carefully crafted narrative of being a bastion of feminist ideals, and become a leader in supporting the victims of sexual assault, rather than protecting its reputation and financial interests. This is the only ethical way for you and the board of trustees to react to these allegations. I have seen no indication to-date that the school is doing anything other than protecting power and privilege, and operating as just one more patriarchal institution that is complicit in the systemic abuse of women.
The events of 1998 have had a detrimental effect on more alumnae than just Ms. Sullivan — myself included. We have lived with your secrets too long, and I will be sharing my thoughts with my network of alumnae. I strongly encourage you and the board of trustees to always do what is right and ethical in the face of these types of abuses. Sexual abuse of children and teenagers continues to occur because we protect the perpetrators when protecting ourselves and our reputations. I will no longer be a participant in a culture of secrecy that protects predators. I hope that you feel similarly and can position Emma Willard School at the forefront of reforms that will protect the girls in your care now and into the future.
Sincerely,
Martha Deeds, ‘99