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Emerson vows to improve handling of sexual assaults

Emerson College on Wednesday vowed to improve its investigation of sexual assaults after a group of students filed a complaint with the federal government alleging the school downplayed and failed to fully investigate at least two recent incidents.

“We can and we will do better,” the college’s president M. Lee Pelton said in a campus-wide email Wednesday afternoon.

Pelton announced a number of steps, including the hiring of a “sexual assault advocate” who will support sexual assault victims and oversee the college’s sexual assault response and prevention programs. He will also hold a campus community meeting soon to discuss the issue and related concerns.


Students filed a federal complaint last week with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, according to Emerson sophomore Sarah Tedesco, 19, and junior Jillian Doherty, two of the complainants who have spoken publicly.

Tedesco said hospital test results show she had been drugged one night last October while at an off-campus MIT fraternity party in Cambridge and then raped by an MIT student, whom she had never met before. She said she was also sexually assaulted by a fellow Emerson student, whom she knew well. Officials at MIT declined to comment Wednesday, citing federal privacy laws.

Tedesco said she told Cambridge police, who began to investigate. But she said their questioning became overwhelming, and she then sought help from school staff and administrators.

Tedesco said they encouraged her not to talk to police, and instead go through the school’s judicial process.

But she said the school mishandled her case. After several months, the case was closed because, she said, administrators said it did not warrant a hearing that would more fully review the allegations.

Tedesco said that before the school completed its investigation into the first incidents, she was sexually assaulted again by the same Emerson student who allegedly assaulted her in October.


She said she reported the more recent case to campus administrators, who again allegedly downplayed her complaint.

Tedesco said both of her alleged assailants remain at their respective schools. Neither has faced punishment, she said.

In an interview, Tedesco praised Emerson’s encouragement of a “culture of consent’’ among students -- meaning that consent must be established by both individuals before engaging in any sexual activity. But, she said, “they aren’t going anywhere near actually investigating cases.”

The complainants allege that Emerson administrators violated their rights under Title IX and the Clery Act in handling investigations into their claims of sexual assault. Tedesco said a number of students in addition to her and Doherty filed the complaint, but she declined to specify how many or provide a copy of the complaint, citing the others’ requests for privacy.

“This isn’t about us. This is about future victims,” Tedesco said in an interview Wednesday, before Pelton’s letter was circulated.

The reason for filing the complaint “is very clearly and very passionately to make changes on campus and to raise awareness that this happens,’’ she said. Tesesco has become an advocate and spoken publicly about her allegations over the last several months.

The Huffington Post first reported on the federal complaint Tuesday night. The Globe does not print the names of alleged sexual assault victims unless they wish to speak publicly.

In his letter, Pelton said he could not comment directly on many aspects of the complaint due to federal privacy laws. Instead, he discussed broader policy changes.


He picked two administrators to lead a review to submit a report by March that will include recommendations for how to improve sexual assault response and prevention at Emerson.

His letter also described a number of measures – including new programs designed to create a “culture of consent” and to support rape survivors – the school has already taken since last spring when outcry from students over reports of an off-campus student rape prompted administrators to vow to review school policies regarding sexual assault cases.

“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,” Pelton wrote.

“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,” he added. “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.”

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at mjrochele@gmail.com. Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities?