Dickinson Failed All of Us. We’re Trying Not to Fail Them.

Mia Merrill ’19, Guest Columnist

The past week has been a blur of op-eds, emails, petitions, and desperate phone calls. As necessary as the Title IX reform movement is, it’s exhausting to witness and participate in, and I’m not even on campus. It’s a cause that I’ve cared about and informally worked in for years. But the details of the case that has become the catalyst for the student movement resonates differently with me. 

I cast the person who committed sexual assault in a student-run production the semester after he assaulted Rose. It was the first show I ever directed, and it was about a teenage girl who confesses to a social worker that she’s been sexually assaulted. But someone in the social work office thinks the girl is making up the assault for attention—can you guess who played the non-believer?

I didn’t know he had committed assault. I didn’t even hear rumors or gossip. I found out the next fall, when I wondered where he had gone and someone broke it to me. I was in a daze and I couldn’t sleep; my roommate, also a Mermaid Player, also a friend of the former student, just stared at the wall with me as we ran nightmare scenarios through our heads.

I knew that logically, I hadn’t known he was a perpetrator, and I didn’t have a magic crystal ball to tell me he was. When Rose stopped participating in a lot of Mermaid Players events, I assumed she was busier with other extracurriculars. But I was the director of a show about sexual assault. I’d consulted with advocates from the Carlisle YWCA for the show, and I had been a peer educator with the now-defunct Prevention, Education, and Advocacy Center. I had devoted rehearsal time to discussing the intricacies of sexual assault, why survivors do and don’t come forward, how communities protect abusers.

And that whole time, I had put the cast and crew in danger and further isolated Rose and the other survivors from theatre activities. I felt like I should have known, and like that was where the failure was.

Our minds will bend over backwards to blame ourselves rather than grapple with the reality that someone we trusted did something horrible.

Everyone I know who was sexually assaulted while at Dickinson was assaulted by a nice person. Everyone I know who committed assault was a funny, smart person I’d had a class with, or had been in a club with, or was friends with someone I knew, someone whose judgment I trusted. No perpetrator was someone I “suspected”. They did not tattoo “abuser” on their faces. The red flags were just Dickinson hats.

If Dickinson had completed Rose’s Title IX investigation in 60 days, I would never have cast the perpetrator in a student production. But Dickinson failed us, and as a result I failed a group of students I cared about by putting them in close contact with an abuser.

It might look like theatre is a breeding ground for abusers. Rose said in her op-ed that her assaulter self-identified as a feminist, and I do think that a lot of men in theatre get away with bad behavior because people assume they’re progressive. But that’s the same of any community where someone can capitalize on someone else’s trust. That’s why sexual abusers thrive on sports teams, in the performing arts, in religious communities, in schools, in Greek life—because abusers most often seem like nice, normal people you wouldn’t give a second thought to. 8 out of 10 survivors of rape were raped by someone they knew.

I knew I wasn’t complicit, because I would never have associated with someone if I had known they’d committed assault. But I didn’t know, and so I felt complicit. I still do, honestly, because the perpetrator violated my agency as a director and a student leader. I believe that it’s on every single one of us to keep our communities safe and healthy.

I believe that in failing Rose, Dickinson failed each and every one of us.

I encourage the administration to listen attentively to the demands of the student movement. I encourage them to put aside the legal jargon for a moment, the concerns about money and board members and donors, and just listen. I encourage them to reflect on a time when their ability to make decisions, to lead, to trust someone else, to trust a community, was taken away from them.