When Sexual Assault Happens, Colleges Fail to Listen

My alma mater’s lies about sexual assault accountability have long been stale.

Jackie Gualtieri
Sep 1, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

Many of us hadn’t experienced it personally, but we heard the whispers. When sexual assault and sexual harassment happened at Emerson College, there was little to be done. Sure, you could report it, but why? When you already knew nothing would happen aside from your own harassment, why would you bother making life harder than it already was? Why bring more pain upon yourself?

Having been sexually assaulted by a man outside of Emerson’s microcosm, I didn’t so much as consider going to my school to talk about it, not even to use the “therapy” programs provided. At the same time, I knew several people who did. And several more who opted to never try.

Perhaps it’s because of what we learned after a few days on campus.

Freshman year, I was lucky enough to be on the twelfth floor of Piano Row, one of the newest dorm buildings, which had beautiful suites with a view of the statehouse. It’s a floor that is usually reserved for sophomores and juniors. We were wrapped up in the awe of being so lucky, to have so much in just our first year at college. What we didn’t know was that one of the people who was supposed to help us in our college journey was actually hurting the new students. One of the first RAs I met was an alleged rapist.

After he and other RAs held introductory meetings where they told us that their doors were always open, and gave us ways, as well as reasons, to contact them, the whispers started. From one floor to the next, we heard from other RAs, as well as older students, to avoid him. If you needed something, go to a female RA. But above all, steer clear of him.

It’s strange how, at such a young age, you don’t know what that means. Why steer clear of him? He’s a little pompous, but altogether friendly. And man was he handsome. More than a few younger students had crushes on him. But when you start hearing more specific stories, the way he seemed to glow dimmed. Suddenly, he wasn’t just pompous. He was dangerous.

Seems like a weird statement, right? What does Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have to do with Emerson College? Well, this man has since graduated from his and my alma mater. A fellow journalism major, he found his way to NowThis News. He’s outspokenly liberal and, somehow, ended up on AOC’s radar. So when he tweeted about how she pays her interns a living wage, she quote tweeted it.

His survivors came forward, in droves, as well as those of us who remembered the warnings. Though many Emerson students knew the stories, for the first time, the world heard them. AOC removed the retweet, instead writing:

“Hey all, note for transparency: yday I quote-tweeted someone noting that we pay interns a living wage. It has since been brought to my attn that multiple survivors are speaking up about this individual. My heart breaks for them, and I am deleting the quote tweet in solidarity.”

Naturally, she was met with a number of men yelling at her for outing a known assailant. I would hope, had they known what we knew, maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss. It should also be noted that NowThis conducted an internal investigation that found more issues that occurred there as well, resulting in his termination.

But it wasn’t just him who was outed publicly thanks to AOC’s one quote tweet.

Shortly after I left Emerson, many students shared the names of their assaulters as graffiti on our soon to be demolished Little Building dormitory. Several of those names came up again following the reporter’s outing. Many of the names had multiple accusers.

On Emerson’s campus, the names were shortly removed, with Dean Pelton saying, “The College does not tolerate sexual misconduct. A culture of sexual misconduct undermines the capacity for students to thrive in a learning community. Some incidents are reported to the College, and others are not. The College acts decisively on all reported incidents of sexual misconduct.”

He then went on to say that Emerson’s “value of basic fairness is undermined when members of our community accuse other members of violating the College’s code of conduct without the benefit of all of the facts.”

Of course, you should be able to have all of the facts. But it appears Emerson gets to decide what the facts are, regardless of what the accuser says, and how they want to react to the facts provided.

This RA is not the only assailant, not by a long shot. Nor is this the first time that Emerson has been called to task for their mismanagement of sexual assault on campus. It’s also not the first time that the Emerson students and community have been met with a useless statement like,

“Emerson College is committed to fostering a community free from power-based interpersonal violence, including sexual assault, which has been all too common on college campuses for far too long. This is critical work.”

In 2013, three students filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights following the college’s failure to adequately respond to reports of sexual violence. It seems a little ironic that Dean Pelton is so concerned about getting all the facts when Emerson neglected to even so much as interview witnesses for one of the accusers before closing her case.

Another complainant was assaulted for a second time, while her first case was still being “investigated.” During this time, she also started receiving anonymous threats. She says she was also warned by “several people in the administration and Office of Housing and Residence Life that it was a quiet matter and I shouldn’t be making a big deal with it.”

So, I have to ask, how does one get all the facts, when the accuser is not supposed to say anything?

All three women said that they were not supported in any manner, shape, or form throughout the “investigations.” The last complainant was ultimately put on academic probation and threatened with the loss of her scholarship, while she struggled to handle the Title IX investigation alongside her schoolwork.

In response, the college “vowed” to do better. Pelton said,

“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.”

Seven years later, and we’re still having the same discussion with the same platitudes.

Students don’t trust the Title IX process, and schools don’t give them a reason to trust it. In a 2019 study of 33 large universities, 1 in 4 undergraduate women reported that they experienced sexual assault. Under 30 percent of them filed a report or sought any form of help from their school.

Over at Stanford University, which notoriously mishandled Brock Turner’s sexual assault of Chanel Miller, only 29 percent of undergraduate women believed that if they reported a sexual assault to the school, administrators would conduct a fair investigation.

At Emerson, they swore that following the investigation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, they worked to implement changes like “the hiring of a sexual assault advocate who will support sexual assault victims and oversee the college’s sexual assault response and prevention programs.”

So, did it work? Are fair investigations now happening at Emerson? What is the aftermath like?

Well, I graduated in 2017. In my sophomore year, my friend studied abroad. Not only was the man who assaulted her allowed to study abroad, the same semester no less, but she says he was placed in the room next to hers for the entire semester.

I’m guessing, though, if Emerson knew that information, we’d probably be told that they “vow” to do better. Maybe next time, a victim’s assaulter will be placed all the way in the room down the hall.

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories…

Thanks to Fearless She Wrote Editorial Team

Jackie Gualtieri

Written by

writer and editor - Talk to me about your favorite abandoned Disney ride.

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.

Jackie Gualtieri

Written by

writer and editor - Talk to me about your favorite abandoned Disney ride.

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.

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