Berklee students expressed concerns recently about the way the school handles sexual assault cases. A few weeks ago, a student posted a warning on one of Berklee’s community pages about another student who was found responsible for the sexual assault of the poster’s partner and suspended. The post was made to alert the student body that the period of suspension is almost up, and that a student found responsible for sexual assault will most likely soon be returning to Berklee. Although there were several people defending the perpetrator, the biggest concern seemed to be about the outcome. Why was a student found responsible for sexual assault merely suspended?
Schools in the US have to comply with Title IX, which deals with gender based discrimination. It states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal assistance.” According to the Title IX Guidance Letter (Dear Colleague Letter), sexual assault and harassment are covered under this law: “the sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual assault, is a crime.”
Berklee was subject to a Title IX investigation in 2014 (alongside dozens of universities across the country) and has since set up an Equity office and policy (available online). This policy outlines what constitutes a violation of the policy and outlines some of the options victims have when reporting to Berklee, including no contact orders, no trespass orders, help with court ordered restraining orders, academic support, delayed due dates, changes to classes, housing, or workplace, etc. Basically, the policy states they will do anything they can to ensure “the safety and well –being of the Berklee community.” The Berklee Public Safety team also eventually got an overhaul: “Public Safety used to be more of a security driven model. About a year and a half ago, we changed over to a police model: we have police officers working for us now. Before it was just the four of us, me and the three other lieutenants, and the Securitas guys. Well if you notice, there’s a lot less of them and there’s a lot more cops: dark uniforms, guys and girls riding around in police cars. So we went out and we hired police officers, we did a background check on everybody, and they’re all trained, they’re all certified.” (Public Safety Lt. Jerry Collins). Christopher Kandus-Fisher, Berklee’s Chief Equity Officer and Title IX Coordinator, outlined their procedure when handling complaints of sexual assault and harassment.
1. Any report made to a staff member gets reported to the Title IX office: “[they] can give you privacy, but they have to report it because [they’re] a responsible employee by the school.”
2. The employee alerts Dr. Kandus-Fisher or Christy Anthony (Deputy for Equity System Administration) who then reach out to the complainant.
3. An Intake Meeting is held, “…which is a discussion about what happened…It’s not about us saying whether they’re telling the truth…it’s just to take the information and based of what they’re saying, determine if there’s a possible violation.”
4. The student is then given their options: a criminal investigation, a formal investigation by the school, an informal resolution, or no action at all (in which case the school will just keep a record of the report). This is decided by the student, although in rare cases, when it is deemed to be necessary to protect the Berklee community, an investigation will be started no matter what. A criminal investigation and a formal school investigation can happen concurrently. The school’s formal investigation is decided on the basis of a preponderance of evidence (essentially, whether or not it is likely that a violation occurred and the person named is most likely the perpetrator based on the evidence), while a criminal investigation has to be beyond a reasonable doubt.
5. If a formal investigation is requested, the information is given to the Deputy of Community Standards, Michelle Quiñones, who then either investigates herself or passes it on to one of the other investigators who have been trained by the experts in the field (hired by the institution).
6. Once the investigation is complete (all relevant parties interviewed and all evidence reviewed), the evidence goes back to Ms Quiñones, who makes sure that everything has been done in accordance with Berklee policy and practice. It is then sent to Dr. Kandus-Fisher, who makes sure that the Berklee process has been followed. The investigator makes the decision as to disciplinary action.
7. The investigator sends out a letter to both parties involved informing them of the determination of responsibility. Each party has the ability to appeal within 5 business days of receiving the determination.
This procedure is fairly straightforward. I reached out to several people who had reported through this system to ask about their experiences reporting. Most couldn’t talk about their cases, as they were still on going, either through Berklee or the criminal justice system. One person, however, was able to speak about her experience. Georgeta Seserman initially reported before the Title IX investigation was complete, and had a less than stellar experience: “It was pretty awful. Nobody followed up with me…they did a no contact order but he violated it three times and he still stayed. I reported it every time. I had to take a semester off because I was so traumatised, I couldn’t stay in school.” When she came back in September of 2015, she reopened her case with Dr. Kandus-Fisher. “One of my issues with Equity is that there’s a lot of retelling the story over and over again, which was extremely traumatic for me. I knew when I went through the whole investigation system, I would have to tell the story, but it was telling the story to a lot of people, which was rough. Also, and I know this is a part of Equity, but reading [the respondent’s] side of the story. That was hard. They basically said, “You need to tell me everything that’s false here,” which I actually appreciated, because at least I could do that. He got to do that too, but I read his side and I was like sick. It was just bad.”
Then she found out that he was just suspended: “I read the verdict and at first I saw he was dismissed from school, and then I saw he was only dismissed for a year. And I felt good that I wasn’t going to see him for a year, but now that the year is almost up, I feel pure dread that he’s going to come back.” This isn’t an uncommon fear: this was the reason for the Facebook post that caused this conversation. Nor is it unreasonable: this student in particular has ignored contact orders before and caused Ms. Seserman considerable distress in the process. Suspension clearly does not resolve the issue, and does not prevent further trauma to the victim.
When asked about sanctioning, Dr. Kandus-Fisher said: “We can expel someone, but you need to remember this: the definition of sexual assault goes from unwanted touching all the way to a forcible rape… so, we can’t say, just because a person has been held accountable for a sexual assault that the sanction’s going to be consistent. And so, not everyone knows the details of the case, and so what level of what was actually held accountable from that gamut is so large, the outcome is going to be different for each person.” He then clarified that if a student were to be found responsible for ‘forcible rape,’ however, they would be expelled.
Content warning: the next paragraph contains descriptions of rape.
According to the determination of responsibility, the person who attacked Ms. Seserman admitted to the assault during the investigation (he has since been unavailable for comment): “In both versions of events, there was enough agreement by both the respondent and complainant that sexual contact and intercourse (which is defined by penetration) did occur. Both parties in their versions of events agreed that the complainant made clear she did not wish to engage in sexual activity…We determined through our investigation and through a preponderance of evidence that the sexual contact and intercourse that did occur was non-consensual.” The determination defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient – whether the contact or behavior is initiated by a “hook-up” partner, friend, acquaintance, or stranger. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities such as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incents (sic), fondling, and attempted rape.” Both the phrase ‘forced sexual intercourse’ and first sentence of the actual decision (“In both versions…did occur”, quoted above) are highlighted in pink, which certainly suggests that, at least in the investigator’s opinion, ‘forced sexual intercourse’ was what occurred. But this respondent, like the person who sparked the outrage a few weeks ago, was merely suspended.
This is not in any way unusual in sexual assault cases that are handled by universities. When disciplinary action is taken, the perpetrator is generally suspended. Universities tend to give several reasons for this: that sexual assault is a broad term and to demand mandatory expulsion for it is to ignore the complexity inherent in such cases, or that mandatory sanctions take away administrators’ ability to “tailor punishments to the circumstances.” The problem with this reluctance is that when perpetrators who have been found responsible for assaults (no matter the degree) are allowed to return to campus, they cause further harm to their victims. PTSD is a common illness developed by victims of sexual assault, and learning to live with that is difficult enough without being confronted with the person who caused the trauma in the first place. One could say that placing the victim in a situation where he or she might encounter their attacker is violation of the victim’s Title IX rights: PTSD and the other illnesses that tend to come along with suffering sexual assault affect the sufferer’s ability to stay in education in the first place, and reintroducing the source of the trauma will likely make the situation worse.
Whether or not that constitutes a violation of Title IX is for legal experts to decide, but the fact remains that it does not respect or protect the victims of sexual assault. Yes, everyone has a right to an education, but the school has a responsibility to keep its student body safe, and permitting rapists (or any other person found responsible for sexual assault or harassment) to return to campus violates that mandate. Considering nuance, insistence on the ability to modify punishment, or as some would suggest, the impulse to keep the school’s reputation intact are not good enough reasons to permit continuing threats to the student body to remain on campus.
Every spring semester, Berklee reviews its Community Standards policy, and students have a say. If you would like to be a part of this process, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your feedback, whether it’s about more clearly defining sanctions imposed on those found to be responsible for sexual assault, or how the school handles assaults in general. This situation can be changed.