UTC faces 2nd Title IX complaint: University accused of mishandling sexual harassment allegations

UTC faces 2nd Title IX complaint: University accused of mishandling sexual harassment allegations

March 1st, 2015 by Claire Wiseman in Local Regional News

Seen through a window in Hunter Hall, students walk across the UTC campus.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Clarification

This story was altered to include the first name of student Shelby McDowell.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is already grappling with a federal investigation into its handling of a 2014 campus rape allegation. Now another complaint has been filed by more women who say the university mishandled a slew of sexual harassment allegations.

Beginning in October, several female students went to the University Women's Center to report that a male student was harassing them before and after classes in the English department. They complained that they could see pornographic images on the personal computer he used during class, that he followed a female student to her car, that he verbally abused them and that he told his classmates he was carrying a knife.

At least three professors also complained about his behavior. One teacher said she felt uncomfortable because of a comment he made about her appearance. Another canceled class meetings and moved his class online because he felt threatened.

But a university judicial process found that the male student had not violated the school's code of conduct. At a hearing, only one young woman's complaints were addressed, and some complainants were told afterward that Associate Dean of Students Chad Clark had lost other students' statements. The male student's defense was that he was exercising his right to free speech.

After an appeal was denied, a group of students complained to the U.S Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleging the university violated their Title IX rights. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in education and specifies how schools must handle instances of sexual discrimination, harassment and violence.

Meanwhile, a separate Title IX investigation into the handling of a case involving one of the school's wrestlers is ongoing. In that case, the school initially ruled in the athlete's favor, then abruptly reversed its decision.

Now, facing new accusations, school administrators -- already worried about the growing national spotlight on schools' handling of sexual assault complaints -- are promising students they will re-examine the case.

***

The flurry of emails began in October.

"I assume you know to whom I am referring," Cassidy Primm emailed to her Survey of American Literature classmates in October. "The guy who whistles during class, disrespects the professor, and taunts certain women in class, as well as harasses them weekly."

"I'm not comfortable talking to him or having him physically near me," Erica Paris, a senior English major, wrote to Women's Center Director Sara Peters a few weeks later.

"He's bizarre," English department head Dr. Christopher Stuart wrote in an email to administrators. "He's disrupting classes, frustrating and distressing my faculty."

Paris said the student, who is in his 30s, sat uncomfortably close to her during class, said things in a sexually suggestive voice and made her feel uncomfortable. She was afraid to tell him to stop, she said in an interview with the Times Free Press.

After one interaction when she flipped him off and he called her feisty, she said, "I just wanted to go home and take a shower."

Meanwhile, professor Matthew Guy said the student misbehaved in class -- letting out a whistle whenever Guy's back was turned, being combative during discussions and arriving during Guy's office hours demanding to be let in to "look at [Guy's] books whether Guy liked it or not."

In another faculty confrontation, the male student let out a long whistle when professor Amanda Pettit-Shaheen walked into a classroom. He told her, "You look like the picture of an angel today," according to an email Pettit-Shaheen wrote to College of Arts and Sciences Dean Jeffery Elwell.

This happened only once, Pettit-Shaheen wrote, and it stopped after Dean of Students Jim Hicks met with the male student to discuss his behavior, so she let the issue drop for a time. But students continued to complain about the male student's behavior. What disturbed Pettit-Shaheen more, she wrote, was the outcome of his conduct hearing.

"I am having a hard time understanding how the female students' concerns were not seen as significant enough to warrant some action against him," she wrote.

In fact, even though multiple complaints had been filed, Paris was the only student at the hearing.

***

Students charged with violating the university's Student Code of Conduct can choose to be tried by a judicial officer under the Administrative Procedures Act, or by a student conduct board made up of peers, said university spokesman Chuck Cantrell.

The male student in this case chose the latter.

According to emails sent by Stuart, six students from professor Abbie Ventura's class submitted complaints to Peters at the women's center. Stuart submitted a letter to the conduct board the day before the hearing, and other faculty made statements.

"I can honestly say that no single student has taken up more of my administrative time and energy in the last year and a half, and certainly no student has made me more concerned for the safety of faculty and students in my department," Stuart wrote.

But at the time for the male student's hearing on Nov. 5, Paris believes she was the only participant notified by Clark, the associate dean of students. She agreed to come and gave a statement.

Later, Paris says, Peters told her that Clark lost the statements of other female students who complained. But Hicks told Stuart that Peters was the one who lost a sticky note with the names of six students who complained about their classmate.

After the conduct hearing, the male student was cleared of all charges. The accused student declined to speak to the Times Free Press, citing the advice of UTC staff, but in an email to his classmates after the hearing, he wrote that he was expressing his right to free speech.

He was told that he couldn't have physical contact with Paris or talk to her outside of academic discussions.

Faculty were stunned. Stuart wrote to Elwell to express "serious concern" if the student was allowed to remain at UTC. Professor Verbie Prevost asked plainclothes campus police officers to sit in on her American literature class.

At a meeting that included two campus police officers and a university attorney, Guy said Hicks told him only one student came forward to complain about her classmate, and that her statement didn't hold up because there was no proof that he followed her to her car. But Paris never claimed that incident happened -- it was another student who says she was followed.

Guy says that shows that Hicks had to have seen more than one student statement.

"I honestly think the Division of Student Development is not being honest with faculty and they're not being honest with students," Guy said.

The missteps Guy and others cite in this case are echoed in the complaint already being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights.

Molly Morris, who accused classmate Corey Mock of raping her after a party last spring, told national publication Vice Sports that Clark took her statement incorrectly and confused facts in an official report when she went to him with the rape allegation.

Mock first was found not responsible, but then the decision was reversed and he was expelled. A Chancery Court judge in Nashville approved an order allowing him to continue to take classes this spring, despite strong opposition from the university.

***

After the initial finding exonerating the male student, Paris appealed the ruling and tried to pursue Title IX violations against her classmate, but was denied.

In an email to Guy, Vice Chancellor for Student Development John Delaney wrote that while the male student's "behavior was at times inappropriate, these actions and interactions did not meet the standard for violating our Student Code of Conduct and that is the guideline the Hearing Board had to follow and that I used in my review of the appeal."

Emily Weddle, 19, a sophomore who says she's seen the male student threaten others, said she's afraid of what will happen because he is allowed to remain on campus.

"If he does end up hurting somebody, it's going to be on UTC," Weddle said.

No further complaints have been made about the male student. Paris and fellow student Shelby "Aaron" McDowell both have classes with him this semester. McDowell said his behavior has changed completely, and that he no longer seems willing to speak out in class at all.

But because of their dissatisfaction with the hearing process, Paris and McDowell signed off on a lengthy letter describing their side of the story and highlighting how they say the university mishandled the case. They slipped it into every faculty mailbox.

In the letter, they promised to file a Title IX complaint.

Within 24 hours, the students who signed the letter had gotten an email from Chancellor Steven Angle promising a full examination of the case by Title IX coordinator Dr. Bryan Samuel. Faculty, too, were assured the case would be re-examined.

Cantrell said he couldn't confirm any details of the case, but said there were "enough questions" about the way it was handled to involve the Title IX coordinator and include oversight from the University of Tennessee's attorneys.

As a matter of procedure, details of this and all cases going back several years would have been provided to investigators with the Office of Civil Rights for the university's ongoing investigation into the handling of the Mock case. Cantrell said the university hasn't received word that it's under OCR investigation in this latest sexual harassment case.

In January, UTC unveiled a new interim policy on sexual assault, which Cantrell said reflects changes outlined by OCR and in Title IX and the Clery Act. The latter requires universities to publicly report sexual assault.

But at a meeting to discuss the changes in January, students expressed outrage at the handling of both the Mock case and the more recent sexual harassment issue in the English department.

Paris, McDowell and Weddle say that changing the policy won't mean anything if officials can't handle complaints. They say they don't have much faith in the university's promises.

Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at cwiseman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.