Berklee Students Walk Out of Classes and Speak Out Against Sexual Assault

Berklee students, calling for a change in the university's policy on handling sexual misconduct, hold a walk-out in Boston on Monday, Nov. 13th, 2017. Photo by AnnMarie Barenchi / BU News Service

By AnnMarie Barenchi
BU News Service

Hundreds of Berklee College of Music students walked out of classes Monday and marched down Boylston Street in protest of how the college has handled sexual misconduct on campus.

The group of students, faculty and alumni marched in silence, waving signs and holding up fists. The organizer of the event, Michela McDonagh, 20, said that keeping silent was a way to make a statement.

“It’s representative of the way we have been treated and the way victims have been treated,” she said. It was also a way to keep the protest organized, McDonagh said.

“I’m very aware of the fact that the nation’s watching us,” she said. “The moment something goes wrong, it de-centers everything that we are doing and instead it becomes the riot.”

The Walk-Out/Sit-In Against Sexual Assault came in light of a recent report published in the Boston Globe about how Berklee had quietly let multiple professors go after being found responsible for sexual misconduct. The article also exposed the gag orders placed on the victims.

The protest received over 300 RSVPs. The petition created to “let Berklee administration know that you want them to properly address these allegations” has over 4,000 signatures.

The protesters marched from 1140 Boylston St. to the Berklee Performance Center where President Roger Brown was to hold an open forum on sexual misconduct in the place of the postponed state of the college address.

“We are here to have a conversation,” said Sky Stahlmann, 18, one of the marshals during the march.

“We know we make this school,” she said. “We are Berklee, so we want to feel safe.”

The center filled to the brim with students, faculty and alumni. David Lee, a Berklee alum, said he came out to march because he saw sexual misconduct at Berklee as an ongoing issue.

“There have been rumors of a very deep network of rape and cover up from well before I was a student here,” he said. 

“Maybe this chain of administrative policy could be broken,” Lee said. “It’s an exciting time.”

Though the college had initially stated in an email that the forum was open only to students, faculty and staff, press were allowed in at the request of the students, who have been calling for transparency.

McDonagh, along with fellow students Sky Stahlmann and Patrick Gdovic, read a letter at the start of the forum addressed to President Brown. The letter outlined demands for change, such as guaranteeing expulsion of students found responsible for rape, ceasing gag orders on victims and replacing Berklee’s original response to the Boston Globe article with a condemnation of sexual assault.

Though the speakers had requested audience members to snap instead of clap or cheer, the crowd erupted when Stahlmann, who had drafted the letter with McDonagh, closed with a reference to Berklee’s latin motto, which translates to, “To be, rather than to seem.”

“We demand our safety to be, rather than to seem to be,” Stahlmann said. 

The letter was followed by statements from President Brown, Senior Vice President for Student Enrollment and Engagement Betsy Newman and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Larry Simpson.

“To everyone who has been harassed or abused at Berklee, I am so sorry,” he said.

During his statement, Brown revealed that there have been 11 faculty removed from the school due to sexual assault and harassment over a 13 year period.

“It is not an insignificant number,” he said.

Brown stated that the college intends to create a work group that will include students dedicated to improving the issue of sexual misconduct on campus. 

He then opened up the forum for comments, questions and conversation. Students lined up behind microphones set up in the aisles to voice concerns, ask questions about next steps and share personal stories of their own sexual assaults.

Faculty also joined in the conversation to demand a change in student composition, calling for 50 percent to be women by 2025. Currently, women make up 38 percent of Berklee’s student body, according to the 2016-17 Berklee Factbook.

One Berklee student brought her own experience to the microphone, explaining that her assaulter was merely suspended and is now back on campus. 

She said that she loves Berklee and all its luxuries, but wonders why her perpetrator gets to enjoy the same.

Throughout the forum, Brown came back to one response many times.

“We have work to do,” he said.

Though McDonagh said she was grateful the college allowed them space to speak out, she said they will not protest silently again if the college does not follow up.

“We will take action by whatever means necessary,” she said. “We’re watching.”

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