Now You See It Now You Don’t - On Sexual Abuse Allegations And Illusive Transparency At Emma Willard School

Now You See It Now You Don’t - On Sexual Abuse Allegations And Illusive Transparency At Emma Willard School
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Twice in the last few weeks I wrote about the allegations by my former high school classmate, Kat (Katie) Sullivan, that in 1998 she was violently raped by her coach while at Emma Willard School (EWS) and then kicked out of school just a couple of months shy of her high school graduation. I have also written about the current EWS administration’s response to the rape and abuse of power allegations falling short of what I believe our school’s founder, Emma Willard, champion of women’s rights, would expect of a school named in her honor.

In the time since I last wrote the alumnae community awaited a response from EWS to the petition signed by more than 600 EWS alumnae and parents and the pressure of media coverage of these accusations.

There was a moment of hope last week when I saw a letter from the EWS Board of Trustees Chair, Elizabeth Allen Lefort. The letter, dated July 25, said all of the things I had hoped to read in the original emails from the school on June 8 and June 22. In the original emails EWS brusquely announced that there had been allegations of historical sexual assault at EWS. In stark contrast to the tone of the other communication from the school, the July 25 email indicated that the school was changing their approach to dealing with these allegations. Saying to the alumnae community, “You have called for a dramatic change in how Emma Willard addresses this issue on our campus today, how we face it in our narrative history…”

It went on:

We begin with our first step; we own this.

Sexual abuse is part of our history. We will uncover the secrets and unflinchingly share the facts with our community. We will expose bad practices and unenforced policies. We commit to transparency.

As I read the letter I was overcome by a sense of optimism. For a few moments, glancing over these words, I thought: This is my Emma Willard. They heard us. Maybe, they are really going to do something.

But here is the thing: In order to commit to transparency, you cannot just say the word. You have to actually practice it.

What we have seen happen in the week since the July 25 email is some kind of peep-show theater of transparency, guiding our eyes to the exposure of small apparent truths, while hoping we will fail to notice what is hiding behind the curtain.

Last week the Pepper Hamilton attorneys EWS retained to conduct the investigation into historical sexual abuse at Emma Willard exposed a truth: EWS has been investigating historical sexual abuse and misconduct since 2014.

Let’s consider this for a moment: The first time the alumnae and parent community was told of knowledge or investigation of sexual assault at Emma Willard was in June 2016, right before the first media coverage of Kat’s story. In the wake of media scrutiny since June and the subsequent significant alumnae expression of outrage, we find out that EWS retained Pepper Hamilton not in 2016, but in 2014 to quietly investigate historical sexual abuse. Now that we know about this original investigation in 2014, we also know there has been no report to date, no community education, and no policy change resulting from it. And while this approach is in direct conflict with the newly promised focus on transparency and student-safety, EWS continues to use the same attorneys, Gina Smith and Lisa Gomez, who have produced no measurable or discernable product from an open-ended, budget-less, almost two-year-long investigation.

This investigation, it bears stating, did not even, apparently, uncover the need to investigate the quite public dismissal of two teachers in 1998 for “overstep[ping] the carefully defined and articulated boundaries of faculty-student interaction.”

There are many words for this, not one of them, however, is transparency.

Pepper Hamilton Webinar and the Rules of Professional Conduct

In an effort to show their commitment to “transparency,” EWS, located in New York State, had their attorneys Lisa Gomez and Gina Smith, of Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia, hold an “information Webinar” with a question and answer period.

Great idea, right?

Well…Let’s see: The Webinar itself had the potential to violate both the New York State Rules of Professional Conduct and Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct (Rule 4.2 in both states).

What is Rule 4.2, you ask? This rule bars attorneys retained in a matter from speaking to persons represented by counsel about the subject of representation. So, in the event that a victim of sexual assault who has retained counsel was to join the Webinar, these attorneys, retained by EWS, would be violating this rule. I contacted EWS Interim Head of School, Dr. Sue Groesbeck, and the Head of Communications about this potential violation in the days leading up to the Webinar and received no answer.

Presumably, however, the attorneys recognized this potential conflict because Kat Sullivan, who was registered to the event, says she was locked out of joining the Webinar using her name.

It seems telling, I’d say, of the school’s position toward Kat (and other victims) that the first alumnae gathering to discuss the investigation of historic sexual assault would be orchestrated in a way to exclude Kat herself.

Kat Sullivan's screen when she tried to join the July 28th Pepper Hamilton "Information Webinar"
Kat Sullivan's screen when she tried to join the July 28th Pepper Hamilton "Information Webinar"
Courtesy of Kat Sullivan

Now You See It Now You Don’t

Once the Webinar got going, the lack of commitment to transparency became, ironically, more transparent.

During the Webinar, Smith and Gomez unceremoniously announced that they were originally retained in 2014 to investigate allegations of sexual abuse from the 1970’s. Participants in the Webinar could use text box to pose questions. These questions fed directly to Smith and Gomez, but remained invisible to other participants. During the question period I, and a number of participants, I later found out, repeatedly posed questions regarding the findings of the 2014 investigation. None of these questions were answered.

Gomez and Smith also skirted questions as to whether the final report would be made public, stating repeatedly that it would be given to the Board of Trustees in its entirety (save for redacted identifying information). However, they made no promise of the report being shared with the larger EWS community. Despite having plenty of time to repeat answers to questions, give lengthy explanations to simple questions, and joke personably as the last minutes of the Webinar ticked by, Smith and Gomez left the toughest questions unanswered.

In my opinion, however, this is an answer of its own kind.

Roderick MacLeish, Kat Sullivan’s attorney, best known for being portrayed in the recent movie Spotlight, clarified for me:

“…[T]here is no commitment by the Emma Board to make their report available to the entire Emma community as occurred in the Freeh/Penn State report and as will occur with the Murphy/St. George’s report which is due out this month Their report will be made to the Board, not the community and the Board is free to sanitize, alter or even mischaracterize their findings. The report will be protected by the attorney client privilege.”

MacLeish also cautioned, “I spoke with Ms. Smith and Ms. Gomez. It is truly unfortunate that they were described as “independent” because (as they both agreed) they are not.” During the Webinar, Smith and Gomez did clarify some details of their investigation. For instance, it is open-ended: They said they were given no timeline, no budget, and no mile-marker updates to meet along the way. They did not, however, offer a substantive explanation of how they have been conducting the investigation nor did they answer questions about reporting expectations. Instead they repeated the words “[we will] follow the facts where they take us” and “we don’t know what we don’t know” so frequently that I wondered if there were any facts they did know at this point.

Since the almost two years of investigation already underway into historic sexual misconduct, has lead to seemingly very little information, and has not yet touched the allegations of the 1990’s, at this rate, I suppose we can expect a final report (which may or may not be public) some time before, perhaps, 2020?

And, at what cost? How many fundraising dollars have been spent on this ongoing investigation at more than $1200/hour that has no discernible product?

At least one alumnae participant recorded the event, as did Pepper Hamilton—evidenced by the little red light on the upper left hand side of the screen, next to the word “recording.” This alumna shared the video on YouTube for the benefit of the alumnae who could not join the rather inconveniently timed 5pm EST Webinar. However, soon after she posted the link in the alumnae Facebook group, Pepper Hamilton, citing copyright violation, quickly removed the video. Questions directed to Pepper Hamilton from several alumnae regarding whether the video will be made otherwise available have gone unanswered. Interim Head of School Sue Groesbeck responded to questions regarding the video by saying that EWS did not request the video be taken down and that she was “surprised” because she was planning to share the YouTube video with the faculty who had missed the event. However, she did not indicate that they would ask Pepper Hamilton to make their recording of the event available elsewhere.

This seems consistent with what we have seen so far from EWS with respect to communication about incidents of sexual misconduct: Show as little as possible—and call it transparency.

So, Is This Transparency?

At first, frankly, it seemed like EWS just hadn’t caught up with modern expectations for PR and communication. They gave the impression that they were all scrambling behind the scenes by mentioning repeatedly how “overwhelming” the alumnae voices have been. Perhaps, they were botching the job under stress? Perhaps there wasn’t enough funding for the programs alumnae want to see implemented?

But, let’s be real, they have the funds to hire whatever help they need. This is an old trick of feigning ineptitude, crying out for lack of funding for programming, whilst hiring cut-throat (not cut-rate) attorneys who have been running up legal fees with no budgetary limitations for almost two years without product.

There is a lot skepticism in EWS’s handling of this case that hinges around the relationship with Gomez and Smith. And this is not without good reason. Gina Smith was profiled in in 2013 by The American Lawyer in which she was called, “part of the scandal cleanup crew” for academic institutions being investigated violating federal law governing on-campus sexual assault. Despite selling themselves on their history in working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, in their current capacity these attorneys have a reputation of focusing on legal compliance rather than underlying causes of sexual violence, producing reports to institutions that are not discoverable, and helping universities push back against victims and activists.

And these attorneys are who EWS decides to hire to “help” the community, “own” our history of sexual assault.

In defense of their selection of these attorneys the EWS webpage devoted to their efforts to respond to sexual assault, a program they call “Healthy Boundaries,” EWS says, “The New York Times has recently described Gomez and Smith as ‘the gold standard in the nascent field of sexual assault compliance under Title IX’” (my emphasis).

Now, that sounds great. Until you look up quote. The full quote, which is taken from a 2016 article titled, Baylor Sexual Assault Report Produces Punishment, but No Paper Trail, which criticizes Gomez and Smith’s investigation, reads as follows:

The lawyers who led the investigation, Ms. Smith and Leslie Gomez, are considered the gold standard in the nascent field of sexual assault compliance under Title IX, even as critics at some campuses they have investigated have accused them of issuing reports that ultimately serve the interests of the universities.

Perhaps this the best quote they could find?

I was taught, at EWS, in fact, to be very careful about taking a quote out of context. And, this is precisely why. Its use is, oddly, quite telling of EWS’s commitment to the truth in this matter: Plucking out some limited truth and putting it proudly on display with one hand and declaring “Tada! Transparency!” while covering the dirty place it arose from with the other hand.

As long as there are clients who want the truth to be hidden, there will be attorneys willing to help them do it. While I find the services that Smith and Gomez have on offer to educational institutions distasteful, no one is forcing EWS to buy them.

And yet…

I feel this way as an alumna, however at the center of this is Kat Sullivan who being victimized yet again by these half-truths. In a conversation last night she assured me she is weary, but “there is more truth to be told, documents and witness statements to reveal.” She continued, “I want to implore, as I have from the beginning, EWS to stand with me and rise above.”

We are demanding that the Emma Willard name is worthy of a higher standard. Not the faux “gold standard” of Gomez and Smith or the flourish of theatrical “transparency,” but the standard of truth, plain and simple.

We know what this is. And we will accept nothing less.




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