Emerson College Reminds Us: Covering Up Sexual Assault Only Makes It Worse

Widespread dialogue surrounding sexual assault and rape on college campuses has quieted down since last year. But the troubling frequency with which administrators mishandle such cases keeps bubbling to the forefront.

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Widespread dialogue surrounding sexual assault and rape on college campuses has quieted down since last year. But examples of the troubling frequency with which administrators routinely mishandle such cases keep bubbling to the forefront.

The latest instance, Emerson College, ought to serve as a mind-numbingly obvious reminder to administrators: sexual violence plagues every campus. By trying to sweep your school's cases under the rug, you're only exacerbating the trauma survivors face, keeping them from properly documenting their assault—and, counterintuitively, bringing far more bad press upon your own university in the long run.

The story at Emerson—which is in Boston and not to be confused with Emory University in Atlanta—centers around Sarah Tedesco, a sophomore, who was sexually assaulted by a dormmate last October. She reported it. Officials, by her account, waited three months to investigate. Then she was assaulted again—by the same student. She started receiving anonymous threats. In January, an administrator discouraged her from going to the police and, The Huffington Post reports, told her to keep quiet about it:

"When I brought this concern up, I was quickly told 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," Tedesco said.

Now she, along with classmates, is filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Tedesco, of course, is not the only student to have faced such appalling administrative inaction. And Emerson—as Amherst students, 100 miles to the west, know well—is not the only campus.

Lee Pelton, Emerson's president, finally responded to the allegations in an open letter last night. Predictably, he reiterates prevention measures currently in place and promises to "do better." But he also half-heartedly shirks campus responsibility for dealing with sexual violence:

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.

Well, yes—of course the college doesn't have the same resources as would be available "in criminal legal proceedings." But it's rather hard for students to take advantage of those resources when administrators explicitly discourage students from going to the police, as Tedesco alleges happened—in the obvious interest of keeping things quiet. That's why The Chronicle of Higher Education's Claire Potter advised students to disregard such pressures in a recent blog post:

if raped, the college is not your friend, and every administrator you meet is tasked with protecting the college from a lawsuit. Their procedures are intended to sweep what happened under the rug make this bad thing go away, contain the damage, and eliminate as much evidence as possible that might be used to prove them liable. [ . . . ] Know that any and all college procedures are crafted with the knowledge that the longer a rape report is delayed, the more likely it is that the student’s only option will be a university coverup campus disciplinary hearing.

Swarthmore college faced chillingly similar allegations—and another OCR complaint—just this past summer. In the May 22 complaint, students alleged that the school created a "hostile environment" in part by discouraging students from reporting incidents of sexual violence. So, too, at Occidental College, where one student survivor described the traumatic aftermath of the rape she was advised not to report:

“For the entirety of my last year in college, I continued to live every day in fear,” Kenda Woolfson, a recent graduate, said at the news conference. “In May, I watched as my rapist shook the hand of our college’s president and received his diploma, and I wished I had not been discouraged by a dean from reporting the rape.”

Administrators have long been employing such toxic measures, which are detrimental to survivors and, by their own assumptions, protective of the school's reputation. By now, they ought to realize covering up sexual violence serves no one, except perhaps the perpetrators.

Top photo of Emerson College by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.