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During meeting with students, PAFA president vows to ‘do better’ in handling sexual-assault cases

The comments were made in wake of an Inquirer story about women who said PAFA mishandled their sexual-assault cases and then ousted their allies.

A portion of sculpture Paint Torch (2011) by Claes Oldenburg is seen next to the contemporary Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).
A portion of sculpture Paint Torch (2011) by Claes Oldenburg is seen next to the contemporary Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts vowed Tuesday that the school would “do better” in handling sexual-misconduct cases and said the school has “a lot of work to do” around supporting victims of sexual violence.

The comments were made during a town hall event for students and faculty organized in the wake of a story Monday in The Inquirer that detailed the statements of two former students, who said the school mishandled complaints they filed in 2016 that they were raped by a fellow student.

Two other women — a professor and a member of an advisory board — also complained about the school’s response to those alleged rapes. Both were later ousted. The school denied that it had retaliated against the women for speaking up about what they saw as potential violations of Title IX, the federal law that in part governs how schools respond to complaints of sexual misconduct involving students.

The town hall was attended by a few dozen students, faculty, and staff, many of whom demanded that the school act to improve its handling of sexual-misconduct cases, according to audio of the meeting. The academy enrolls about 200 undergraduates and fewer than 100 graduate students, and has a 6-1 student-faculty ratio.

Some students said afterward that they were disappointed that PAFA officials did not specify next steps or policy changes. President and CEO David Brigham had told attendees that their feedback would inform action, saying, “We will get back to you, because this is not the end.”

Brigham opened the meeting by listings the qualifications of the school’s Title IX coordinator. He also stated that the school cannot release information about specific cases under federal privacy laws. Later in the hour-long gathering, he said, “The emotional part and the support part is what we still have a lot of work to do around.

“I’m sorry that the students who spoke up in the article had to do that,” he said, “that they felt they needed to do that, that they had to bring their stories forward, which had to be heard. So I am sorry for that, and we are committed to do better.”

Brigham also said during the meeting that the school will name a diversity and inclusion coordinator, who will deal with issues related to race, gender, and sexuality. Officials said the move was recommended by the school’s Belonging Task Force.

During the meeting, several students expressed concern that the school’s Title IX coordinator also has another title, vice president of human resources — a setup not considered a best practice under federal guidelines.

Others asked PAFA to implement a policy banning consensual relationships between faculty and students. PAFA does not ban such relationships. A handful of area schools have implemented more restrictive policies over the last several years. In some cases, the institutions distinguish between relationships in which professors have an advisory or supervisory role over a student. Others ban such relationships in all cases.

» READ MORE: Since #MeToo, colleges crack down on romantic relationships between professors and students

And while some of the two dozen people who stepped to the microphone discussed specific policy proposals or wondered why the school took about 130 days to fully process the 2016 complaint — more than double the time recommended under federal guidelines — many simply expressed frustration and fear.

Others said the revelations had caused them to lose faith in PAFA officials.

“Everyone was angry," graduate student Naomi Momoh said after the meeting. "We were all upset. No part of the student body is comfortable with this.”

Momoh said she had stood during the gathering to speak about prevention tactics, like identifying troubling behavior and the role the school plays in that.

“What happened was horrible,” the 23-year-old said , “but what I want is more of that community connection. I want these behaviors to be stopped before it even gets there.”