Emma Willard School

Photo: iHeartMedia

More than one thousand women have come forward, in the wake of rape allegations at Emma Willard School in Troy. The women have formed an online support group, and created a petition with nearly 500 signatures demanding change at the elite boarding school that they say should have done more to protect its young female students.

Emma Willard is a boarding school for girls in grades 9 through 12. They come from all over the country, to be a part of the school's mission, which "fosters in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world."

Kat Sullivan attended the school, but didn't graduate. Instead, she says she was forced to leave the school just months shy of graduation in 1998, after she reported being tied down and raped by her soccer coach. You can read horrific details of her story here.

After her story was finally made public, the women started finding each other on facebook and reconnecting. As that happened, more victims came forward, sharing similar stories. The group worked together to draft a 12 step petition that they say will prevent more young girls from becoming victims, through education, protection, and a mandatory reporting process... things Kat say never happened throughout her ordeal.

This morning, I spoke with three Emma Willard Alumnae. Leslie MacFadyen, Kimberly Jones, and Lilliana Mason. Together, they spoke about their experiences at the school and the reason they are among an army of women who are outraged at what happened at an establishment that is supposed to empower young women, not victimize them.

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We also spoke with psychiatrist Anthony Ferraioli, about how living away from their parents at such a crucial time in a girl's development can open the door to trusting the wrong person, making bad decisions, and being taken advantage of by those in positions of trust. He also talked about the lasting effects of what happens when a young woman who is victimized and asks for help is shunned, rather than comforted and supported. 

And, I reached out to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She is a proud Emma Willard Alumna, who has worked tirelessly to fight sexual assault in the military. After two weeks, and a visit to the Capital Region, Gillibrand has declined interviews, and has made no contact with the women who have publicly asked for her help. While the only sound from Gillibrand has been crickets, staffer Marc Brumer did offer this statement:

"Senator Gillibrand finds these allegations extremely troubling and would like to see a thorough and independent investigation. These are horrific allegations that no young women should ever have to be subject to and her heart goes out to the survivors and their families."

I also reached out to Gillibrand's Emma Willard classmate, Jennifer Whalen, who has also become a prominent figure in the Capital Region, running for New York State Assembly. There was no response.

And finally, Emma Willard Interim Headmistress, Dr. Susan Groesbeck issued a statement to current students and their families. It states, in part, “We have had, in our history, thousands of girls in our care. Ours is a culture of excellence and extraordinary care--a supportive, committed, experienced nurturing environment. These reported incidents are isolated and in no way systemic or current.” You can read the entire statement here.

After 18 years, the school appears to finally be taking some steps to right a wrong.  School spokesperson Erin Pihlaja tells me Emma Willard has hired two former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutors out of Philadelphia to investigate Kat’s claims, and those made by other women.  She says the attorneys’ role will be to serve as independent investigators, and “they neither prosecute nor defend, nor do they engage in civil litigation for or against educational institutions. At Emma Willard, they have been engaged as external and objective child protection experts to investigate. 

They will inform the entire school community of their findings regarding historical allegations of abuse in a manner that is respectful of individual privacy. This process will necessarily take time to be thorough and complete. We have asked for all students with information to share to come forward, so that the narrative that emerges is complete and accurate.” 

The alumnae plan to deliver their 12 point plan to the school on Friday, July 15. In addition to the specific points they have outlined, their underlying request is for engagement and dialogue between school officials and current and former students. They are also urging other alumnae to join in the discussion.  The members only group can be found here.

While the clock can’t be turned back for Kat, after 18 years, she may just be the catalyst for change that has been desperately needed for a very long time. Another part of Emma Willard’s Mission Statement reads “ We will care for one another—in good times and in bad times.” At one thousand voices strong, these women are living that mission. 

You can read the petition here