Berklee College of Music students protest school’s response to reports of sexual assault

"Everything that Berklee has been doing is all talk and no action."

Berklee College of Music graduates line up before commencement ceremonies Saturday, May 9, 2015, in Boston. CREDIT: AP/Michael Dwyer
Berklee College of Music graduates line up before commencement ceremonies Saturday, May 9, 2015, in Boston. CREDIT: AP/Michael Dwyer

Berklee College of Music students on Monday protested what they believed to be the university’s insufficient response to a Boston Globe report on sexual misconduct from faculty members. Students say they want more transparency from the college on these cases, as well as expulsion for students and firing of professors found responsible for sexual misconduct. They silently marched to the Berklee Performance Center, where Berklee College of Music President Roger Brown held a campus-wide meeting about sexual assault and harassment. Organizers told ThinkProgress that journalists were initially barred from entering the performance center, leading many of the students to state they wouldn’t go in either.

Last week, Kay Lazar, an investigative reporter at the Globe published a story about incidents in which students say professors at the school sexually harassed and assaulted them. According to the investigation, the school appeared to tolerate this behavior by silencing students and staff who said they experienced harassment and assault, discouraging students from bringing court cases, waiting weeks to act on complaints, and brushing off concerns about inappropriate sexual behavior.

The college responded to these allegations in the piece. Students protesting the university’s response took issue with the accuracy of the college’s statement, “As evidenced by our past practices, where an investigation reveals a serious violation of our sexual misconduct policy, we act swiftly and decisively to remove the individuals from our community.”

“This is blatantly untrue. Every single person at Berklee knows that there are sexual predators and rapists walking around,” said Berklee junior and professional music major Michaela McDonagh, one of the students who organized the protest.

Sarah Khatami, a Berklee junior and co-organizer of the protest added, “Everything that Berklee has been doing is all talk and no action. A lot of students are still in classes with their rapists. A lot of students see their rapists in the hallways. And we just want something to be done about that.”

There are two student petitions, which have a combined 5,226 signatures as of November 12. One petition “calls for the expulsion of a student suspended for rape” and another calls for greater transparency in how Berklee handles sexual assault cases. The students who organized the protest listed five actions they want the university to take in response to these accounts of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

They asked for a policy that requires a student or faculty member found responsible for sexual assault to be expelled or fired and to have it completed by the end of this semester. They demanded that accused faculty or students found not responsible for sexual assault or harassment never be placed in a class or group with the person who accused them of assault. They added that the university should stop issuing gag orders and no contact orders by the end of the next semester. Student protesters said they want a retraction of the college’s statement to the Globe because they claim it is not accurate. Lastly, they want that statement replaced with “a condemnation of sexual assault on campus.”

McDonagh added that the college should alert students when a sexual assault has occurred.

“If Public Safety were, for example, to send something out similar to what would happen if someone were mugged or something like that, it’s the same breach of security, as well as letting students know they are following up with strict action by this deadline and not just ‘We’re talking care of it,'” McDonagh said. “We want to know how are you taking care of it, and when are you going to be taking care of it.”

Some of the accounts included in the Globe story included a woman who said she woke up naked to an instructor groping her. A woman who graduated from the school and later worked there said she experienced sexual harassment. Another woman said she was licked and grabbed by a instructor who offered her lessons one night. Another student said a professor pressured her to have sex. One professor, Greg Osby, responded to the latter allegation. He denied it by implying she was not attractive enough to harass and told the Globe, “Only an idiot would sleep with students, and I am not an idiot … But after they graduate, it’s open season.”

Sexual harassment and assault from faculty to other university staff and students — and the ability for faculty to move on with their careers as if nothing had happened — is not rare in the academic world. For example, a March 2017 Associated Press investigation found that a lack of transparency and lax discipline is prevalent across the University of California system. A University of Kentucky student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, obtained documents showing that an associate professor of entomology, James Harwood, was the subject of a seven-month investigation after three years of allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment. He resigned and there was never a hearing. The people who say they were assaulted or harassed told the Kernel they were upset his record would not follow him to another school.

In the case of one Berklee professor mentioned in the Globe report, the institutions of higher education that employed him after Berklee did not appear to be aware of his alleged actions at Berklee until the woman who says he assaulted her contacted them. After she contacted the schools, one school did not renew his contract and another severed ties with him. Now he is a part-time faculty member at a prep school.