Sun | Sep 15, 2019

College #MeToo - Victims expose Edna Manley sexual harassment cover-up

Published:Sunday | May 26, 2019 | 12:22 AMJanet Silvera - Senior Gleaner Writer
Nicholeen DeGrasse-Johnson, principal of Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.
Professor Maluwa Meshane Williams-Myers.
The entrance to the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts located on Arthur Wint Drive in Kingston.
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WESTERN BUREAU:

An explosive sexual harassment scandal and claims of a cover-up are threatening to rock Jamaica’s chief fine arts school, the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, sparking a toxic atmosphere of fear and intimidation, alleged victims have told The Sunday Gleaner.

Among the troubling allegations is that after repeated complaints by female students about the unwanted advances of a senior male lecturer, school administrators continue to turn a blind eye. They have also been threatened with punitive grades, this newspaper has learnt.

Reports are that the teacher in question, a perennial fixture in the power structure at Edna Manley, has been targeting several female students, as well as an American professor who is here on work permit.

“A lot of people have come forward with written and verbal statements in the past, but they have not gone anywhere,” a student who was allegedly sexually harassed by the same lecturer told The Sunday Gleaner.

“This has been going on now for years, and other students and teachers have brought it to the attention of the dean and the principal, and it has all gone unnoticed … swept under the rug and they kind of just – well, they haven’t done anything; he is still here. They are aware of what he has been doing and they haven’t done anything about it.”

The student said the teacher started taking an interest in her from as far back as 2015, making inappropriate comments, causing discomfort.

She said he would also make crude and sexually suggestive jokes towards other girls in the class and tried to justify his conduct by saying that “everybody is of age, so it shouldn’t be something that is considered weird or unusual … because we are all adults; we are all in college”.

The brouhaha rekindles memories of the #MeToo women’s movement that has swept the globe over the last two years in outing sexual harassment and assault, bringing to book and pouring public shame on perpetrators.

The student’s comments have been corroborated by Professor Maluwa Meshane Williams-Myers, a lecturer at the college who has painted a damning picture of a hierarchy of enablers whose posture and culture of permissiveness have empowered their harasser.

“I have known about four or five of the cases involving students. Some of them have had their hair grabbed. Some have been asked questions or told, ‘I can’t wait until you are old enough to have sex with.’ Others, basically, if you don’t do this for me, you are not going to have a good grade … a passing grade,” she told The Sunday Gleaner in graphic detail.

ADMINISTRATION TIGHT-LIPPED

Williams-Myers, who is set to leave the college in August, laments that there has been no crackdown by the leadership of Edna Manley, even though the top tier of the fine arts college is exclusively populated by three women – principal Dr Nicholeen DeGrasse-Johnson, and vice-principals Kerry-Ann Henry and Dr Trudy-Ann Barrett.

“Yet they are silent on the abuse of these young girls,” added Williams-Myers.

Efforts to get a response from the school’s hierarchy since last Tuesday proved futile, as emailed questions were acknowledged but not answered.

However, hours before today’s publication, DeGrasse-Johnson contacted The Sunday Gleaner but would only say that Edna Manley College had launched an investigation into the allegations.

Pressed for details on the number of allegations and other concerns surrounding the sexual harassment claims, DeGrasse-Johnson was tight-lipped.

Williams-Myers told The Sunday Gleaner that a lot of the affected students are in dire need of counselling.

According to her, complaints about the male teacher’s innuendoes and intimidation have been bolstered by one of her colleagues, who also alleged that she, too, was assaulted.

“She told me about it the first time it happened,” Williams-Myers explained. “She also said that following a complaint to school administrators, she was asked to submit a list with the names of the affected students and also an assurance that the situation will be handled. That was two years ago, and he is still there.”

Williams-Myers said that she has been personally affected to the point where she has lodged complaints with the public defender, Bureau of Gender Affairs, and the United States Embassy.

Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry has launched a probe into the allegations, but declined to comment further, citing the sensitivity of the investigation.

“I keep asking myself, why has nothing been done? To me, it’s so hard to believe that no one has really said that you will have to go,” the professor told The Sunday Gleaner.

The academic said that the habitual harassment was widely known on campus and accuses college administrators of being complicit in a cover-up of the sexual predator.

“When you pay your tuition, you should be safe. You should be comfortable to learn; you should not be traumatised; you should not be living with fear; you should not be emotionally scarred,” said Williams-Myers. “I would like to see that they are fully engaged and not just taking the students’ tuition fees.

“This is now an environment that is bitter, negative, and toxic.”

Jamaica’s jurisprudence does not outrightly outlaw sexual harassment, though debate on the matter has intensified in recent years and legislation was due to be tabled in 2018.

janet.silvera@gleanerjm.com