Culture of silence exists at Edna Manley, claims ex student's council head

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
Senior staff reporter
saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, September 02, 2019

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Past president of the student council at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA), Nadia Brown says there is a culture of silence at the institution on the issue of sexual harassment, but that it is not the administration that keeps quiet.

The college has been at the centre of a deepening controversy involving allegations of sexual harassment levied against a senior male faculty member by a third-year student.

Last week, reports emerged that principal, Dr Nicholeen DeGrasse Johnson was suspended by the Marigold Harding-headed board, as investigations continue into allegations.

The lecturer in question has been sent on leave, according to testimony provided to Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) by DeGrasse Johnson in June.

The principal, however, faced sharp criticism from PAAC members as she explained the events leading up to the media report by the student, and the actions which her administration had taken.

Last week, faculty and staff members gathered at the college's St Andrew campus to express dissatisfaction with DeGrasse's suspension, and the Board's handling of the situation.

Marketing and communications manager at the EMCVPA Colleen Douglas told the Jamaica Observer that the perception of a cover up by the administration was particularly disturbing.

In a weekend interview with the Observer Brown said there exists a culture of silence among students, as they were afraid to go forward with those types of complaints.

She said fear of making formal statements presented a major problem in the established reporting mechanism, as the administration could not act without formal reports.

“At no point was I able to approach the administration for the mere fact that I had no documentation to back up the complaints. I would never have been able to approach Principal DeGrasse Johnson. She and I never had that discussion because I couldn't go to her with rumours. I heard things, I knew what I needed to do to take it to the next level, but I could not.”

The students were not speaking to the administration, Brown said, instead there were what she calls “whispers”.

“Some of those whispers didn't come to me directly, I would overhear people discussing it amongst themselves, I put myself out to approach them, because I'm supposed to represent their best interest — and said to them allow me to intervene on your behalf — there was a silence that breaks my heart. It ranges somewhere between apathy and anxiety —angst about the possible repercussions of the powers that be, being vindictive,” according to the former student body head, those fears were of backlash from the person accused, not the administration.

Brown said that for the two years she was vice-president and then president of the council (2016/17 and 2017/18), she received informal complaints, but could not act.

She stressed that the culture of silence that permeates the EMCVPA with reference to sexual harassment is not unique to the institution. For those in the arts, it is particularly difficult to speak out because artists tend to be introverted by nature, Brown pointed out.

“So it was a struggle to get them to voice what was happening in the space that it needed to be said,” she reasoned.

She is bemused at the suggestion of a cover-up by De Grasse, given that an investigation was already underway before the allegations reached the media.

“If she's saying that she had a number of complaints documented, and there is proof that a lot of people were coming forward, and they were going through the procedure that they needed to and she did nothing then by all means there are grounds for that (accusation).”

Called before the PAAC, DeGrasse-Johnson said she had received reports in 2017 from a staff member about students complaining of sexual misconduct by a senior faculty member. She said at that point he was warned that action would be taken against him if there were any further complaints. The administration received one written statement, she said.

Brown is of the view that the tone of the PAAC sitting was accusatory, instead of seeking to gather information.

“It sounded like a witch hunt from the jump. By her own explanation one student complained, took the student to the process of getting her to the point where she would have written. By way of trying to create a case that is solid enough to take to the board, so that let's say if the accused is guilty, the case would stick, requires her to go and investigate — that make sense to me, that's due process. So I'm not entirely sure how we ended up here,”

She said the situation — though understandably sensitive and emotional — if examined objectively, should lead to DeGrasse-Johnson's reinstatement.

“The solution that I think is required is that we step away from emotionalism and evaluate the facts. What does the evidence say? Dr Johnson said in the PAAC hearing that once she received the statement from the young lady that an investigation ensued and would have been ongoing prior to the story hitting the papers. If the basis for her suspension is to investigate whether or not she covered up, then logically the best way to determine whether that is true is to weigh the evidence — based on that I do believe that the facts will prove that she should be reinstated,” she argued.

However, the former student leader said with the decision to suspend already set in motion, due process must now be allowed. “I would hope and caution staff and students to allow it to take its course, with integrity, with truth, and without emotionalism, ulterior motive and with fairness.”

Brown argued that the current tensions do nothing to dispel the apprehension among students who want to report matters such as these.

“The focus needs to shift. We need to tackle the culture of silence that exists, we need to find ways to implement processes and systems, look at what exists, what needs to be implemented (and) strengthen them — make the students a vital part of that conversation,” she insisted.

She said the students were being sidestepped and treated unfairly.

“The main concern of everyone should be how do we keep the students safe; how do we cause them to now feel like they are in an environment where they are cared for, not where they should continue to further be afraid to speak out because the backlash of it may result in suspensions, and media frenzy,” she added.

She does not believe DeGrasse-Johnson's suspension forms part of the solution. “When you evaluate the situation, there are a number of processes and situations that need to be fixed. What are the systems and processes that are in place so that students can stop being afraid, so that students can know that I can anonymously make a valid report against a lecturer, a member of staff (or) another student that I have been sexually harassed or assaulted?”


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