Attending the Berklee College of Music had been a dream Sky Stahlmann carried with her for years. She knew she wanted to work in music, and had grown up singing with an opera company. Her mother, a diligent researcher, found the Boston school.
“I just knew this was the school that I had to go to,” Stahlmann said. “I knew. Ever since I was like 14. When I got the acceptance letter, it was one of the most exciting moments of my life.”
Stahlmann, an 18-year-old from Florida, started in the fall at Berklee, majoring in professional music with concentrations in songwriting and contemporary writing and production. In November, she and other Berklee students learned that their school had been accused of mishandling sexual misconduct and assault cases, a revelation that emerged in a Boston Globe investigation.
“I was shocked. I was like, this isn’t Berklee,” she said. “It was disappointing. It was a moment when you realize something or somebody you look up to messed up.”
Now, Stahlmann is among students working to improve the school. She says she has met with Berklee officials, and believes the institution wants to change.
“Berklee was my world,” she said, “so if I’m going to be in it, I need to change it.”
Stahlmann wrote an essay for The Washington Post, explaining what it feels like at her school.
The scene at Berklee
The Berklee College of Music late last year joined a larger national conversation on sexual assault and misconduct, as the Boston Globe reported on allegations at the prestigious school. For Berklee’s students, staff and faculty, the Globe’s report led to a wave of emotions and activism on our campus in Boston.
In November, members of my college community received an email from Berklee President Roger Brown, a message that was a response to the Globe article. To those who had not read the newspaper piece, the email proved surprising: Berklee was embroiled in sexual misconduct allegations.
The Globe revealed that Berklee’s administration had allegedly mishandled sexual misconduct and assault cases for years. Students and faculty had been issued gag orders and cases had been shoved under the rug, according to the article. The alleged incidents involved faculty members and student victims. It was heart-wrenching to read. Based on the Globe story, it seemed that the school I love — my dream school since eighth grade — had failed us all greatly.
I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Within days, a revolution was arising among students and faculty. Members of Berklee’s student body quickly organized a protest and crafted a collective list of demands backed by thousands of signatures. Hundreds of passionate students showed up to a forum about our administration’s handling of sexual assault cases.
This news broke during my first semester at Berklee. But on that day, I was part of a movement fueled by years of pent-up emotion.
Students packed into the Berklee Performance Center for the forum or followed along through a livestream. Brown told the crowd that 11 faculty members had been terminated in the past 13 years.
“To everyone who has been harassed or abused at Berklee, I am so sorry,” he said at the time. “I apologize for this institution. It’s unacceptable. It breaks my heart. It goes against everything that makes me want to be here in the first place.”
I had been part of the group that organized the protest. Two other students and I authored a speech that detailed proposed changes, as well as a timeline for action. When I got up to speak, I looked around the room and saw a sea of eyes, razor sharp with anger and fear.
In the weeks since, the environment has been volatile on campus. It’s as if someone ripped a scab off a wound that had not healed. Another Berklee student compared it to the end of a long-term, abusive relationship, an ending that unleashed a torrent of emotions.
For so many students, this time has been spent reflecting on their own experiences with sexual assault, a silent and painful process. I have read many of their stories, as they poured into my inbox over the past couple of weeks. Some students say they were assaulted by strangers, others by friends, some by lovers. Some have accused members of the Berklee faculty. Many have carried the weight of the trauma for months or even years.
One student, Georgeta Seserman, accused administrators of neglecting her case and her safety. She sees the person who allegedly attacked her, a fellow student, on Berklee’s campus constantly, she says. “I am affected knowing that Berklee didn’t protect me,” Seserman said.
The experience hurt Seserman’s ability to focus on her studies. But since the protest and forum, she has felt an outpouring of support.
“We just want change and we want to see our community protected,” she said. “We are a passionate and vulnerable community of artists, and we want to see that Berklee cares about its survivors.”
One student suggested Berklee should work harder to improve how it vets potential employees. But the student recognized that might be difficult if another college fails to tell Berklee about an instructor’s problematic past.
I think it is important to remember that Berklee is an institution that deals with musicians, who can be incredibly vulnerable. Our jobs require us to put our emotionally charged work into the hands of people who could exploit it. We are required to spend one-on-one time with teachers, producers and engineers. Our days are often spent living on tour with others in cramped conditions. It is important for Berklee to provide an ironclad support system for sexual assault survivors because of the nature of our industry.
From what I’ve seen, Berklee’s administration is taking concerns that have arisen during the past few months seriously and is working with a range of student leaders to improve policy. Students have met with administrators to share how they think Berklee should change. Berklee has made concrete efforts to form a working group to discuss policy, further action and education. What was once a culture of silence is transforming to one of support, accountability and empowerment.
It has been rewarding to work with administrators, and to see my campus work toward changing how it approaches this issue. This work helps survivors heal, something that has genuinely affected me.
The change happening at Berklee is something other college campuses need to see. And it is something larger, too: a change that we need in the music industry, and a change that we need as the conversation about these issues plays out on a national stage.