Freshman Students Discuss Scandal As Orientation Begins
WESTFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ Freshmen orientation began Sunday at Westfield State College with no official word to new students about the suspended college president charged with sexually assaulting two former male students.
But officials alluded to the scandal involving President Francis J. Pilecki by telling new students that the school had a sexual harassment policy outlining steps to follow if they ever had a similar complaint against a professor or administrator.
Copies of the policy will be attached to the student handbooks and distributed when students begin returning Aug. 31 for the fall semester, said Sarah Light, vice president of student services.
Talk among students, starting a three-day visit before school begins Sept. 2, focused on the scandal as well as typical concerns about campus life.
In a discussion with eight women students who gathered in her dormitory room, student counselor Molly Hyde introduced the subject without mentioning Pilecki’s name.
″Westfield was not positively stressed in the newspapers this year,″ said Ms. Hyde, a junior from Sherborn. ″If you have any questions or problems with what happened, please ask me or (Associate) Dean (of Students Norman) Hiersche.″
The scandal arose in June after reports that one of the two students had received a $10,000 payment from the school.
State education officials first said the payment was for academic deficiencies, but acknowledged after angry professors complained that it was to cover the state’s liabilities arising from the two students’ allegations.
Since then, Pilecki has been indicted by a Hampden County grand jury on four counts of indecent assault and battery.
Before half of this year’s 850-member freshman class began arriving Sunday for the first of two orientation sessions this week, acting school president John Nevins told the 82 volunteer student counselors they could expect questions about the scandal.
Nevins didn’t tell the counselors specifically what they could say about the scandal or whether to talk about it at all, said Ms. Hyde. She said she decided it was important to bring up the topic with her freshmen.
″You can’t ignore it because it would look like you’re covering it up,″ she said.
She didn’t discuss the specifics of the allegations or the payment but tried to separate the scandal from the 2,200-student college.
″It was one man and his problem, not the whole school. Despite what happened, it doesn’t have any effect on the academics,″ she said.
Before the scandal, Ms. Hyde recalled, strangers had asked her where Westfield State was located.
″Now, they say, ’Ohhhh. You go to Westfield State,‴ she said.
″Just hang in there and give it a chance,″ she advised the newcomers.
The scandal erupted after Gina Giusti, 17, of Norwood, had enrolled but never caused her to reconsider attending Westfield State. In fact, she said, she was impressed by the professors’ persistance in setting the record straight about the $10,000 payment.
″If they care enough to speak up like that, then it must be a good school,″ Ms. Giusti said. ″After hearing professors say there’s nothing wrong with it academically, that made it sound like a school I wanted to be at, where the professors cared about the kids.″
The student counselors had a few questions of their own Sunday for the acting president about when the scandal would be behind them, Hiersche said.
Two faculty members - college archivist and history professor Robert Brown and computer science professor Timothy Bergendahl - said last week that they had been called to testify this week before a second Hampden County grand jury investigating the scandal.
Pilecki faces a pre-trial conference Aug. 26.
″Where it goes from there we don’t even know,″ Hiersche said.