November 18, 2017

Recent sexual assault charge focuses attention on Gordon policies

This story has been updated to add clarity to one section.

By Madeline Linnell

Managing Editor

The August arrest of Gordon student Mischael Pierre Celestin on a charge of indecent assault and battery involving a 15-year old girl sparked dialogue among current and former students concerning his enrollment at Gordon College, given previous allegations against him that some students were aware of, and put new focus on college sexual assault policies that some students say served them poorly prior to recent revisions.

Over more than a month, the Tartan interviewed current and former Gordon students, learning about their stories and concerns. Tartan reporters also traveled to Quincy and Brockton to review police and court records contained in official files and to attempt to give Celestin the opportunity to comment. The Tartan also examined other legal and college documents provided by women who were critical of Celestin or former Gordon policies.

The Tartan asked the College about Celestin’s case and the current and former students’ complaints in September. Rick Sweeney, Vice President for Marketing and Strategic Communications, responded in part: “The matters you are reporting are painful, complex and deeply personal. Out of respect for the privacy of all involved — and in compliance with FERPA laws, which protect all students — we are unable to provide specific information related to students or employees at the College.”

The statement continues: “The College is confident that, in each case, it responded to the information available at the time of any report or allegation in a thoughtful and compassionate manner, and respected the complainant’s wishes to the greatest extent possible.”

In Celestin’s recent court case, prosecutors allege he made non-consensual sexual advances on a 15-year old minor in Brockton, where his family lives. He pleaded not guilty and has yet to stand trial. Plymouth County’s District Attorney’s Office press officer Beth Stone said, “We are proceeding forward with the case against Mr. Celestin.”

PIerre Celestin, courtesy photo taken while he was an ENC student.
Pierre Celestin, courtesy photo taken while he was an ENC student.

Stone declined to comment on whether the DA’s Office has received information regarding Celestin’s time at Gordon and even before then at Eastern Nazarene College (ENC).

Celestin attended Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) in Quincy, Massachusetts, beginning in 2010. He also ran into trouble there for alleged behavior involving a woman, said a former ENC instructor, who asked the Tartan to withhold her name but documented her allegations in two reports filed with the Quincy Police Department — one on Feb. 26, 2014, and another on Feb. 21, 2015. The former instructor told the police Celestin was involved in a sexual assault incident concerning a female family member of the former instructor’s in December 2011.

A Quincy officer wrote in the 2014 report: “[The former instructor] informed us of an incident that happened in December 2011 in which a female family member of hers was sexually assaulted on the Quincy campus. She stated that due to the victim’s reluctance to proceed with the case, there were no charges filed. After the incident, one of the male parties involved was expelled from Eastern Nazarene College. This party was identified by [the former instructor] to be CELESTIN, Mischael Pierre. [The former instructor] stated that CELESTIN was told by the Director of Security for Eastern Nazarene College… that he was not allowed back on campus. According to [the former instructor], no formal trespass was issued.”

Regarding the harassment complaints, the police officer writes that the former instructor allegedly “saw Celestin on the property” and was “followed” by him on Jan. 12, 2012, before his expulsion and no-trespass order. The former instructor later learned Celestin was attending Gordon. Celestin had allegedly approached a family babysitter of this former instructor’s during a Gordon v. ENC basketball game and said to the babysitter “they” — the young children of the former instructor’s — “look like they are growing up fast” and “I wish I could get in touch with them.”

The former instructor and a former staff member, the instructor’s husband, asked Gordon Police to keep Celestin away from their family during games, and the Gordon Police acted accordingly, according to the former instructor’s account contained in the Quincy police report. She said she and the former staff member also warned Gordon Police in 2015 of Celestin’s alleged history of sexual assault. Celestin, according to the former instructor, “was talked to by Gordon Police and told to stay on the student side” of the basketball court, away of from the family.

Brockton Trial Courthouse. Photo by Madeline Linnell
Brockton Trial Courthouse.
Photo by Madeline Linnell

The report quotes the former instructor telling police: “Pierre did stay away from us but sat directly across from us and our girls.” The Tartan reviewed redacted copies that are part of official records and otherwise identical, un-redacted copies that name Celestin and were provided by a private citizen. A third party familiar with both documents told the Tartan the copy provided by the private citizen was authentic.

Former Gordon students remember Celestin attending classes and being on campus from Fall 2012, although exact dates of his enrollment at Gordon College remain confidential due to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations. Colleges are not required to include disciplinary records with the students’ transcripts, so it’s entirely possible Gordon could have accepted Celestin without any knowledge of the alleged Eastern Nazarene incident.

Celestin did not reply to repeated requests from the Tartan for a comment. Two Tartan reporters visited his house on Sept.16; a woman answered the door but declined to speak with the reporters after they identified themselves. The Tartan also reached out to Celestin through email and Facebook. Celestin’s lawyer, Marjorie Tynes, did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.

A Gordon friend of Celestin’s, Jeremy Jackson ’17, said he finds Celestin to be “trustworthy,” “nice,” “dedicated to his church” and generous enough to invite him (Jackson) to Celestin’s house for Thanksgiving. Jackson said, “He is not the monster being depicted.”

“I know that Pierre might have fallen into temptations and vices of the flesh, but I know that Pierre — I know Mischael has been nothing but a brother to me,” Jackson said.

One of Celestin’s accusers is Shayla Lopez ’15. She said Celestin assaulted her twice, and she remains dissatisfied with the way Gordon handled her allegations.

The first assault occurred in either October or November 2012, she told the Tartan. She said Celestin made unwanted sexual advances while they were watching a film in her single dorm room in Evans Hall. Lopez told the Tartan that she did not report the assault at the time.

Lopez alleges Celestin assaulted her a second time around December 2013 while they were in a communal lounge in Tavilla Hall. She said Celestin was even more forceful in his advances the second time.

Lopez is dissatisfied with the way Gordon handled the matter.

Lopez said she told her Residence Director, Elizabeth Lyons, about the second alleged attack sometime after the alleged Tavilla assault and thinks Lyons filed an anonymous complaint on Lopez’s behalf.

In a May 5, 2014, email correspondence between Lopez and Lyons that Lopez shared with the Tartan recently, Lyons wrote: “I greatly apologize for not following up on this more because I do believe and want to advocate for you.” Lyons goes on to suggest ways Lopez and any other women who might have similar complaints might initiate a formal investigation process.

Lopez told the Tartan she didn’t heed advice from Lyons  to take legal action against Celestin. “I just knew that if I pressed charges I’d have to get a lawyer and do the whole police report, judge-trial thing, and I was so overwhelmed…I realized after (that Gordon administrators) kinda forgot about it/me I wanted to do the same, to move on from it,” Lopez said.

Lyons declined to comment for this story.

To this day, Lopez said, she has never seen evidence that Gordon investigated Celestin based on her anonymous allegation.

Lopez is not the only Gordon student frustrated by the process.

Marianthy Posadas-Nava ’17 said she was sexually assaulted by a former student — not Celestin —in November 2013. She reported the incident to Gordon Police on May 11, 2014, she said, and Posadas-Nava said the same former student assaulted her again in July 2014. She attempted to get a restraining order against the former student twice, she said, because the first time Gordon Police provided her with the wrong paperwork; she did, however, successfully obtain one the second time around. On Feb. 20, 2015, Gordon’s Sexual Assault Hearing Panel stated in “Notice of Outcome” to Posadas-Nava, a copy of which she provided to the Tartan, that it had “examined the case and determined it was inconclusive.”

Since she was dissatisfied with the July 2014 conclusion, Posadas-Nava said, she tried to appeal but “was denied an appeal process after hearing” about the end result. “And it wasn’t until December 2014 that I got it from Jen” — that is, Jennifer Jukanovich, Vice President for Student Life — “under me being the guinea pig for an appeal process for victims. Because before me, the Handbook only gave the accused an appeal process,” said Posadas-Nava.

The “Notice of Outcome” details that Posadas-Nava was “told she could appeal” on Oct. 24, 2014; on Nov. 13, the document reads, she decided not to appeal. Her apparent decision did not last long as she submitted her appeal a month later on Dec. 15, according to the “Notice of Outcome.” There is no mention of whether she “was denied an appeal process after hearing” or not, as Posadas-Nava said.

The “Notice of Outcome” does acknowledge the changing nature of the appeal process, though. It reads, “The Center for Student Development issued an interim set of appeal procedures as part of its continuing process to review and revise the College’s sexual assault policies and procedures. This appeal investigation was more detailed than a typical appeal because it was deemed necessary to elaborate and expand upon the initial investigation conducted by the hearing panel.”

It does not explain why the process has been reviewed and revised.

Posadas-Nava complained to the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights in a letter dated Nov. 16, 2015, which she provided to the Tartan. The letter requests Gordon instill a transparent, consistent system with highly trained and well-equipped administrators to help students with their sexual assault investigations — for “a solid system be implemented by the college that would not re-traumatize and violate the student by requiring them to repeat their testimony over and over again.”

She said her complaint was denied because it failed to meet the OCR’s “Timeliness” stipulation, which requires complaints to “ordinarily be filed within 180 days of the last act of discrimination”; continuing to state that otherwise, “if your complaint involves matters that occurred longer ago than this and you are requesting a waiver, you will be asked to show good cause why you did not file your complaint within the 180-day period.”

The pre-2015 system did not please Jess Mahan ’15, either.

On a public Gordon student blog called Student Inqueery, Mahan wrote in an entry dated May 1, 2014, that a female student assaulted her on campus. Title IX encapsulates same-sex sexual violence — and yet, according to Mahan, the College’s Residence Life and CSD staff members did not seem to recognize that one woman could sexually assault another. Mahan vouched for the blog but declined, when contacted by the Tartan, to elaborate.

Former student Jess Mahan's blog details her dissatisfaction with Gordon's handling of an assault complaint she brought against another woman.
Former student Jess Mahan’s blog details her dissatisfaction with Gordon’s handling of an assault complaint she brought against another woman.

The Department of Education has issued several updates in recent years to guide the implementation of Title IX.

Sexual violence, as defined by a 2014 Questions and Answers document, is “physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent.” It also details the terms of violation, that is, when a federally funded “school violates a student’s rights under Title IX regarding student-on student sexual violence.” These conditions include: “(1) the alleged conduct is sufficiently serious to limit or deny a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s educational program, i.e. creates a hostile environment; and (2) the school, upon notice, fails to take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and as appropriate remedy its effects.”

OCR officer David Thomas pointed the Tartan to a press release statement issued by a U.S. Department of Education spokesman, which reads: “The Department is required by law to issue rules, regulations or orders of general applicability to implement the statutes for which it has responsibility. Additionally, guidance documents are often developed in response to questions from institutions and the public to clarify issues that have broad implications.”

The statement continues, “The 2011 Dear Colleague Letter and the 2014 Questions and Answers (Q&A) were issued to interpret Title IX and its implementing regulations as they apply to sexual harassment and violence and to clarify prior guidance.”

The 2011 Dear Colleague Letter was designed to help advise schools in navigating through sexual violence cases, informing schools of their responsibilities under the jurisdiction of Title IX. The 2014 Questions and Answers responded to educational institutions’ desire for further assistance in the technicalities of Title IX implementation.

Gordon Title IX Coordinator Nancy Anderson said the release of new federal guidelines of 2014 spurred the College to re-evaluate and update its policies. The Student Handbooks prior to 2014, said Anderson, held policies applicable to sexual harassment cases. Anderson said Gordon approved a “comprehensive, full-blown policy of procedure on sexual assault” in 2015, a project that was in the works since 2014. The current, detailed procedure can be found in a Student Handbook, from pages 73-77.

Pauline Gaudette ’17 found Gordon’s new sexual assault policies both helpful and efficient when she filed a complaint about an old case recently.

Gaudette alleged in an interview with the Tartan that, in springtime 2014, Celestin forced her into a compromising position while he was intoxicated in his Tavilla Hall apartment. She said the incident ended when a friend opened the door. Gaudette reported the incident to the Gordon Police shortly after Celestin’s August 2016 arrest. A campus crime log entry created Aug. 31, 2016 resembles Gaudette’s account. It reads, “Student reported being pushed and tackled to a bed in a Tavilla apartment about 2.5 yrs. previously.” Gordon’s Title IX team is currently investigating Gaudette’s case, according to the crime log web page.

The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities to provide a public file of criminal activity, such as rape, fondling, forcible sex offense, and aggravated assault. From 2013 to 2014 (the same timeframe in which all four of these alleged accounts of sexual assault occurred), Gordon’s Clery Act reports contain seven allegations of sexual assault.

Comparable institutions release a similar range of numbers in their Clery Act Annual Crime Reports.

Endicott College, for example, reported one account of rape, six accounts of fondling and five accounts of forcible sex offenses from 2013-2014. Bates College lists five accounts of rape and seven accounts of fondling in 2014; it also had eight forcible sex offense reports in 2013 and 2012. Wheaton College in Illinois, however, yields fewer, with two forcible sex offenses in 2013; and in 2014, one rape and two cases of fondling. Likewise, Eastern Nazarene College reported one forcible sex offense in 2012.

Many colleges scrambled to update their sexual violence policies following the issue of federal guidelines in 2014. Bethel College mandated all faculty, staff and students to complete online training for the first time in Fall 2014. According to an article in the Boston Globe, Emerson College officials surveyed students “to assess the prevalence of sexual assault on campus” in 2014, all in effort to prevent further cases of sexual violence.

In the wake of growing pressures to demonstrate Title IX competency, colleges and universities are intensely scrutinized for any sign of institutional policy inadequacy.

An extreme example of this is Bob Jones University (BJU). The University received much media-fueled flak after the nonprofit organization called Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) released a lengthy report on Dec. 11, 2014 concerning allegations against the University’s mishandling of sexual abuse cases. In a press release incorporated in a Christianity Today article, GRACE Director Boz Tchividjian said that the 2-year-long investigation findings “demonstrated that Bob Jones University responded poorly to many students who disclosed being sexually victimized. As a result of the school’s flawed responses, many of the students were deeply hurt and experienced further trauma.” BJU President Steve Pettit spoke to the BJU community during a Chapel service, expressing deep remorse for those who had suffered because of the school’s failings.

Even though the total rate of sexual violence has decreased considerably in the past 20 years or so (as several Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Special Reports indicate), on-campus sexual violence remains a pervasive threat to students, particularly female students, nationwide. Lisa Fedina’s, Jennifer Holmes’ and Bethany Backes’ “Campus Sexual Assault: A Systematic Review of Prevalence Research from 2000 to 2015” article, published Feb. 22, 2016 in the Sage Trauma, Violence & Abuse Journal, shows just as much. They write, “Findings suggest that unwanted sexual contact appears to be most prevalent on college campuses, including sexual coercion, followed by incapacitated rape, and completed or attempted forcible rape.” The research validates the dismal and unjust reality most U.S. campuses currently live in.

The 2014 Clery Act data may have shown zero accounts of rape among 91% of college campuses (data found on the U.S. Department of Education’s Campus of Safety and Security website), but some organizations are skeptical of these results — but why? Organizations like the American Association of University Women (AAUW) finds it difficult to believe this report can easily “square with research, campus climate surveys, and widespread experiences reported by students,” as it states in AAUW’s conclusion to its analysis of the data. The conclusion expands, “Because schools only disclose reported incidents in the annual Clery Act collection, the extraordinarily high number of zeros suggests students may not feel comfortable coming forward to report such crimes at some of these schools.”

Administrators do not want this to be the case at Gordon College. Jukanovich said in her response to the Tartan’s initial article on Celestin’s arrest: “We do want to encourage anyone who has been a victim of sexual misconduct to report the incident to a member of our Title IX team. On behalf of Student Life, the Gordon Police and everyone involved with sexual misconduct response on campus, I can tell you that we have zero tolerance for sexual assault. Every report will be investigated to the best of our ability, and according to the law and Title IX procedure.”

Meanwhile, Celestin waits for his next court date on Nov. 4.

Shalom Maleachi and Taylor Bradford contributed to this article.

2 Comments on Recent sexual assault charge focuses attention on Gordon policies

  1. First, I want to highly commend the exemplary work of all the student journalists who worked on this article for their professionalism. I enjoy reading student newspapers wherever I go and rarely seen a story dealing with a complex and sensitive issue, spread out over several years, that was so exhaustively researched to cover all sides fairly, and provide all those involved the opportunity to respond. As a former managing editor of the TARTAN many years ago, I am excited to see that it maintains a standard that exceeds many, if not most, community papers. Its readers should recognize that an article this substantial would be unlikely to appear in a newspaper today because of time and space constraints. Newspapers today struggle to survive in the face of a declining readership, rising production costs, competition with other forms of media and the decline in attention span of most Americans. But the quality and depth of an issue in the context of a revealing story, would be more likely to find its place today in a serious professional magazine or respected journal. Ms. Linnell and your reporters this is a job well done.

    Secondly, if space allows, I would just like to add a few comments as someone who has spent many years on more than one Christian college campus. When I was a student at Gordon, serious crimes were minimal and more often in the category of pranks (putting a canoe in what was once a fountain in Frost Hall). Lighting existed in the center of campus but in other areas students commonly walked were quite dark. A noteworthy advance was when a student who was a former state police officer came to study Theology, he helped the Dean of Students upgrade the security force with special training and additional vehicles. Gradually more lighting was added as the campus grew as a precautionary step.

    Prior to the laws described in detail, as far back as the late 1970s, crime (especially of the type you address) was rare and often did not all appear on official campus reports. Meaning, when they did occur, they were exclusively addressed “in-house” and with utmost “discretion”. Students were not informed and offending parties discretely left campus. On some other campuses, years of internal college crime reports were filled with goose-eggs, especially in categories discussed in this article. The shame and potential for damaging publicity were obvious. Still in locations where information could be contained, even late in the 20th century, certain crimes were only reported to local law enforcement at the discretion of the college itself.

    Four, it still remains a challenge to maintain absolute safety in a college community. Fortunately,it is no longer possible to avoid a plan of action with an outlined set of policies regarding sexual violence on a campus because of new laws you explain in detail, the rising numbers of sexual assaults and a willingness of at least some victims to step forward and report them to designated and mandated school authorities and police. Though a giant step in the prosecution of such crimes, obstacles remain in protecting potential victims. Privacy laws such as FERPA are appropriate, but specifically whom these laws protect remains a subject of debate. Another factor is the reluctance of private institutions to share information with one another when students leave one school for another, enabling a perpetrator from being identified to law enforcement in another jurisdiction. It should be apparent that another obstacle is the clarity of the laws and subsequent interpretation of their requirements. This is common among many laws hammered out by lawmakers and administrators with conflicting interests. Your article does a superb job of demonstrating this by highlighting the perspectives of differing stakeholders such as those representing faculty and women (e.g. AAUW), educational institutions, and their administrators, the courts and law enforcement, the media, federal agencies overseeing civil rights, etc.

    In closing, I want to share a admonition from Micah 6:8. “The ultimate goal for all is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord.”

  2. Ms. Linnell and your reporters have done an outstanding job on a difficult but an essential subject.

    First, I want to highly commend the exemplary work of these student journalists for the professionalism demonstrated in this article. I enjoy reading college newspapers wherever I go and rarely seen a story dealing with a complex and sensitive issue spread out over several years that was exhaustively researched in an effort to cover all sides fairly and provide all those involved the opportunity to respond. As a former managing editor of the TARTAN many years ago, it is exciting to see that it maintains a standard that exceeds many, if not most, community newspapers. Your advisor(s), mentor(s), and faculty members should be very proud of your work and recognize that an article this substantial would be unlikely to appear in a newspaper today, because of time and space constraints. Newspapers struggle today to survive in the face of a declining readership, rising costs, competition with other forms of media and the decline in the attention span of most Americans. But the quality and depth of an issue in the context of a revealing story would be more likely to find its place today in a serious professional magazine or respected journal.

    Second, if space allows, I would just like to add a few comments as someone who has spent many years on more than one Christian college campus. When I was a student at Gordon, serious crimes were minimal and more often in the category of pranks (putting a canoe in what was once a fountain in Frost Hall). Security was limited to a single part-time adult with a radio (no firearms) and a few student assistants. Lighting existed in the center of campus, but in other areas where students commonly walked, were quite dark. A noteworthy advance was when a student who was a former state police officer came to study Theology and helped the Dean of Students upgrade the security force with specialized training and additional vehicles. Gradually more lighting was added as the campus grew as a precautionary step.

    Third, there is a long historical context that precedes current problems and policies. Prior to the laws you described in detail, as far back as the 1970s, crime (especially the type you address) was rare and did not all appear on official campus reports. Meaning, when they did occur, they were exclusively addressed “in-house” and with utmost “discretion”. The student body was not informed and offending parties (and often their victims by choice) discretely left campus and victims were assured it would be taken care of and not to be discussed. On some campuses, years of internal college crime reports were filled with goose-eggs, especially in categories discussed in this article. The shame and potential for damaging publicity was obvious. Still in locations where information could be contained, even late in the 20th century, certain crimes were only reported to local law enforcement at the discretion of the college itself.

    Four, It still remains a challenge to maintain complete safety in a college community. Fortunately, It is no longer possible to avoid a plan of action with an outlined set of policies regarding sexual violence on a campus because of new laws you explain in detail, driven by the rising numbers of sexual assaults and a willingness of at least some victims to step forward and report them to designated and mandated school authorities and police. Though a giant step in the prosecution of such crimes, obstacles remain in protecting potential victims. Privacy laws such as FERPA are appropriate, but specifically whom these laws protect remains a subject of debate. My experience has indicated they can go too far in covering up what should be discussed in a non-personal way. I had students disappear, with no communication from anyone at the college, and the result are rumors with no confirmation. Another factor is the reluctance of private institutions to share information with one another when students leave one school for another, enabling a perpetrator from being identified to law enforcement in another jurisdiction. It should be apparent that another obstacle is the clarity of the laws and subsequent interpretation of their requirements. This is common among many laws hammered out by lawmakers and administrators with conflicting interests. Your article does a superb job of demonstrating this by highlighting the perspectives of differing stakeholders such as those representing faculty and women (e.g. AAUW), educational institutions, and their administrators, the courts and law enforcement, the media, federal agencies overseeing civil rights, etc.
    The ultimate goal we should all share is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8). But there is significant evidence that the potential of revictimization remains and discourages such crimes from being reported and perpetrators are protected or treated too leniently. This has been especially true at religious colleges that do not want to tarnish their image. They may deny this, but harassment and sexual assault occurs at higher levels than those reported. Victims deserve greater support and a zero tolerance policy is needed to send a clear message that these crimes will not be tolerated. My own interdisciplinary training in sociology, political studies and criminal justice bears this out.

    In closing, I want to share an admonition from Micah 6:8. “The ultimate goal for all is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord.”
    I loved my four years at Gordon and am saddened and concerned by the events you share in ways that are appropriately urgent, proactive, compassionate and hopeful that the community might embrace the words of the prophet and teachings of Christ. I encourage you and the staff to continue to use the TARTAN to promote greater understanding and discussion. Do not fear to speak truth to power, when necessary, accompanied with a dose of humility. I believe that is the calling of a journalist, even when it is uncomfortable. God gives us the strength to act in faith.

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