Community grapples with accounts of sexual assault

 Graphic by Natalie Kulak ’21

Graphic by Natalie Kulak ’21

BY LILY REAVIS ’21

Content warning: this article references sexual assault.

This is a developing story and the Mount Holyoke News recognizes that the following topic is sensitive. Updates will be available in following print editions and on the Mount Holyoke News website as more information becomes available. — The Mount Holyoke News Executive Board

“This happened on our watch. We’re going to own it. We’re going to commit to it. And we’re going to make sure there is a public reckoning around it,” Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, Mount Holyoke’s Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, said in response to the historical #MeToo allegations that have surfaced on campus in the past weeks.

Since the Associated Press (AP) published an article on Oct. 13 containing Ruth D’Eredita ’84’s accusation against a Mount Holyoke professor, students have expressed a range of emotions, including distrust and anger, toward the College’s administration.

According to the AP article, D’Eredita sent the College a letter in 2017 detailing an assault on her that took place while she was a student. She accused a professor who was not named in the article, but was identified as still teaching at the College. The professor reportedly denied the allegation, and a subsequent private investigation conducted by an independent firm found that there was not enough evidence to prove the professor was guilty of assault.

On Oct. 23, community members attended a rally in support of survivors of sexual violence on Skinner Green. The purpose of the event, which was organized and run by students, was to “show our support for [D’Eredita] and other survivors, as well as make our voices heard and demand a better response from the administration,” according to the event’s Facebook page.

Margaret Golden ’98 flew from her home in Idaho to the College in order to attend the rally. At the event, she encouraged current students to continue fighting against sexual misconduct by professors.

The College is currently working to create an official channel for alumnae to report historical cases of sexual assault. Before now, there had never been a protocol to handle such allegations. “I had been a Title IX coordinator at my last institution,” said Sanders-McMurtry. “We had absolutely no policies around alumnae reporting.”

Each of the historical cases that were brought to the College’s attention last year took place in the 1980s, according to the Associated Press.

History professor Daniel Czitrom began teaching at the College in 1981, and spoke to the campus climate at that time. “When I looked around I saw that relationships, both short and long term, including marriage, were fairly common among students and faculty. And the College had no policy on this,” he said. “In that respect, the atmosphere was quite different then.”

Sanders-McMurtry said, “We can’t take Mount Holyoke out of the larger context, which is that these kinds of behaviors were kind of accepted norms. And as disgusting as that seems now, that’s the reality.”

Since D’Eredita’s letter was received by the College last October, the administration has approved a policy that forbids all student-faculty relationships. In September 2018, the College extended the policy to outlaw all student-staff relationships as well. Czitrom said, “I think that is a good thing, I think it is clear. I think it removes any ambiguity. And I think it reflects the changes that have happened in recent years.”

Zoë Barnstone-Clark ’19, co-chair of the College’s Amnesty International (AI) chapter, said that the organization was immediately displeased with the way the administration responded to D’Eredita’s letter. AI emailed several members of the administration as soon as they saw AP’s article, in hopes of setting up a meeting with the administration. Their goal was to create an open dialogue on campus about the #MeToo movement, both historically and presently.

At the beginning of each semester, Mount Holyoke’s AI chapter chooses the human rights subjects they will focus on. This semester, they chose sexual misconduct and violence as one of their focuses. This was one of their reasons for choosing to reach out to the administration in response to D’Eredita’s letter.

Kali Muhly-Alexander ’20, AI’s secretary, said, “The Amnesty board was outraged and sickened by how Mount Holyoke handled [D’Eredita’s] Title IX case against a professor who is still employed by the College.”

On Oct. 17, Sanders-McMurtry invited all current students to attend an open dialogue about #MeToo cases at Mount Holyoke. The forum was attended by President Sonya Stephens, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Jon Western, Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall and Title IX and 504 Coordinator Shannon Da Silva, as well as Sanders-McMurtry.

Another open forum took place on Oct. 23, hours after the student rally. Sanders-McMurtry and Da Silva were the only members of administration present at this event. Members of AI feel that the College should release certain details about the ongoing Title IX cases, such as the number of investigations that have recently been conducted. “Our conversation with an alumna who filed a complaint suggests that many alumnae also did so over this past year,” said Sarah Bloomgarden ’20, AI’s social media chair.

Students have raised several questions, via email and in public forums, that the administration says they are unable to answer due to confidentiality laws.

“One of the problems is the need to re-think confidentiality,” Czitrom said. “If you have one side saying, as the College has, that we must keep all this confidential, and you have a person making a complaint, splashing it all over social media or the newspapers, confidentiality becomes a distorted, one-way street.”

When asked whether the accused professor would be able to continue interacting with students in the future, Sanders-McMurtry said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen. [...] I think that the number one thing is that, for everyone involved in this situation, there’s an understanding that would not be in the best interest of student safety.” She added that she and other members of the administration consider student safety to include physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.

Sanders-McMurtry said that she believed the administration is on board with the idea of maintaining student safety in several different respects, “including and especially Sonya [Stephens].”

“I can’t say much more than that. I wish I could. [Stephens] wishes she could. I think everyone else wishes they could,” Sanders-McMurtry said. She added that she hoped she was explaining faculty and administration’s reasons for being unwilling to disclose classified information without making excuses for it.

“This whole incident, and the fact that this incident is not an isolated incident, definitely shatters the illusion that I think a lot of students have, that this is a safe campus,” said Barnstone-Clark.

After the first public forum took place, the English department sent an email to all English majors and minors. It stated that the department was not involved in the Title IX investigations which took place last year, and continued, “We understand your need to be heard, to feel safe in your educational home and to know that faculty are looking out for you.” The letter ended with a statement that the department stands with survivors of sexual harassment and violence.

Several members of the English department were approached by MHN, but none were available for comment.

On Oct. 21, Stephens sent an email to students, faculty and staff explaining the administration’s actions since the AP article was published. In the email, she said, “Many students have indicated that the current situation is harmful to their own mental health. We have also received new information that requires us to conduct further inquiry.”

The email also assured students that the College has “canceled two courses where concerns have been raised and have informed the students enrolled in the class. The faculty member is not on campus.”

Stephens emphasized the importance of confidentiality in the email, as well as the importance of student safety.

The student rally that took place on Tuesday provided a place for several students, as well as some alumnae and College staff members, to speak. Some shared their personal experiences and others expressed their support for student survivors of sexual violence.

“For decades, Mount Holyoke has not been transparent concerning the number of Title IX complaints filed with the College,” Muhly-Alexander said. “Nor has it taken the appropriate actions to ensure justice on behalf of the survivors.” She said that all students should have the right to tell their stories and challenge the administration to re-evaluate their handling of sexual assault on campus.

“There’s so much more that needs to be done,” Sanders-McMurtry said in regards to Title IX training on campus. Title IX training includes learning how to be a responsible reporter and focuses on sexual harassment, transgender and non-binary inclusion, gender-based discrimination and student pregnancy. In April, the College hired its first full-time dedicated Title IX coordinator.

According to Sanders-McMurtry, the College is working with Wellesley College and others nearby to organize a day of atonement and reconciliation. She expects the event to take place in January 2019. She said that she wants Mount Holyoke to be the “standard-bearer” throughout those conversations.

In response to Tuesday’s student rally, Sanders-McMurtry encouraged student protest. “Please, please, feel free to speak, resist. I have no problem with rallies, I think rallies are the way that we get things done in the world,” she said.

She added, “Some students don’t feel safe in their own home, so we need to make sure MoHome does better by them. We just do.” She also said that she encourages students to continue thinking of ways for the administration to do better. “I don’t want it to be the burden of students that we get it right,” she said, “but I want students to know they have every right to speak truth to power in the ways that they need to.”

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