Reader query about response to sexual harassment

A reader writes:

I don’t know if this normal sexual harassment policy or if my school is just off its rocker. Since I have had issues with the administration before, such that I quit a few months ago and am merely finishing up the term, I think they are treating this inappropriately, but I wanted some input. A student posted publically, in the class’s online forum, some personal messages to one of the female students. They were kind of strange; he said that he missed her and asked where she was. The girl doesn’t know this boy, and I figured that just based on their lack of class interaction, and his strangeness in relationship to the conversations I have had with him after class and his forum posts made me think something was a bit off.
It turns out that this student had emailed the female student in my class a bunch of sexually graphic messages in the private online messaging center in the education management system the school has. When this came to my attention I told the student that I was reporting the information, and I would not let him in the class because she felt uncomfortable. He showed up to class five minutes late, and as politely as I could be, and without providing too much detail told him he couldn’t come into the class, but that I, or someone else, would contact him in a couple of days regarding the public posting. I didn’t mention the private messages for fear of escalation. I walked back in the classroom. The student continued to remain outside the door, and this made me nervous, so I decided to call the campus police. The student then walks in, sits down, and with his hands, by making the hang-up the phone gesture, tells me to hang up the phone. Of course, I am terrified at this point and I reach for my cell phone and call 911 because the campus police dispatch still have me on hold. He does this for a minute or two and then leaves the classroom. I have the students barricade the door while we wait for the police, on a campus I could walk in less than five minutes (it took the police over 10 minutes to get there). But the doors open outward and lock from the outside, so we are just holding the doors in. The student then comes back and tries to get back in the classroom, and keeps loitering outside the classroom and trying to peek in until the police come. It is after the police come that things seem to go insane in a way I didn’t think that they could.
The police keep saying that they cannot prove the student sent the emails, and at one point the officer demands my class list in order to make sure some other student isn’t in my class. I wasn’t made privy to why, but perhaps he is an email hacker. So, here is a situation in which the female student doesn’t know the male student, she has sexually graphic emails from him, and he is acting aggressively and threatening toward me when I don’t let him in the class. The dean of student affairs, and the go to person for sexual harassment is in there the whole time with the officer. She isn’t comforting to the student. She is acting like this is not a serious incident and comes in all cocky and starts playing drum on the table with her fingers. I think to myself, what a lack of sensitivity; and even the girl says to me, “I feel like I have to prove he sent these emails.” We are both asking what her safety on campus will be, to which we aren’t given very comforting answers. Finally she goes, by the way no one offered to walk her to her car, and I am asked to write up a letter to the dean of student affairs (the woman who came in a decided to play drum on the table) who will pass it on to campus police.
The outcome of the situation is that the student has been dropped from my class, but he can be on campus and attend his other classes while this investigated. I am told that the reason he came back into my classroom was because he misunderstood and thought I was coming back out to talk to him. I think, how can a ‘get off the phone gesture’ and trying to re-enter the classroom again after I am calling the police while the doors are barricaded and the other students are yelling at him to leave, be seen as a miscommunication. The dean of student affairs tells me that she has to be concerned for his rights and that the dean of the social science department will attend my class next Wednesday, as if that’s enough. So, I feel like, this is a clear cut case of sexual harassment by someone who has aggressive tendencies, and basically the only evidence this girl has is in question, not to mention how many times they asked if she knew this guy; and it seems his actions in the classroom don’t matter. I think, and I am not sure, and this is why I am asking, if he had said, bomb, or gun, he would have been not allowed on campus during this investigation. Any advice or thoughts would be deeply appreciated.

12 thoughts on “Reader query about response to sexual harassment

  1. To me this sounds not unlike so many sexual harassment cases, in essence; only the specifics and some minor details differ. It sounds typical of the dilemma of being sexually harassed in a society that still doesn’t take it all that seriously.

    After all that went down, I’m wondering what is stopping you from presenting the evidence of the private messages, which can be much more powerful proof against the man.

    I know the fear we have of being accused of exaggerating or misinterpreting the man’s behavior.
    And this fear seems all-pervasive, still, especially among women, but generally among victims of objectification and cheap stereotyping.

    I commend you for taking your student’s complaint seriously, and for taking this stand. I hope you find the support and confidence to see this issue through, though I know how challenging it often is.

    Good luck.

  2. How terrifying! You are absolutely right this should be regarded with the same emergency as a Bomber or Hit man. They are on the same continuum.. The red flags are springing up the gazoo. It is negligent for the PD to ignore then, however they probably don’t have substansive domestic violence training. Incidents like this have the potential to escalate in the aftermath. If the dean said she was worried about the perpetrator’s “rights”, he may be fathered by an equally aggressive and/or socially prominent parent. Your student and yourself would both benefit from confidential advocacy of a local agency like Women’s Services who can provide support and input like in obtaining Protective Orders. Police and Educational systems can only do so much with their limited training. Their “hands are tied” as I’ve been told. A Protective order doesn’t require “Proof” to be obtained, just fear, at least for the first 30 days. This would kick him out of the school!

  3. This is the same kind of behavior Jared Laughner displayed at his school before he shot Rep. Gifford. He was known to the mental health people at the school, but once he was expelled he dropped of the radar. Likewise James Holmes, the Aurora cinema shooter. Schools attract misfits who are at loose ends in life, and sometimes they are mentally ill and dangerous. This is more than a sexual harassment case. This guy needs to be red flagged to everybody in authority. I would write letters to the dean, campus police, city police and the prosecuting attorney to make sure it is all documented.

  4. First of all, congrats on dealing with a horrendous and terrifying situation with aplomb, courage, and sense. Your support of the harassed student and handling of the aggressor seem absolutely exemplary and admirable. I hope I could do half as well in such circumstances..

    Second, that dean is behaving very wrongly. You might try contacting some of the regular staff who handle sexual harassment cases and see if they can help (if you have any other than the dean). Another thought is the have the student get her parents involved. There’s an ongoing safety issue for their child and a bit of judicious mentioning of lawsuits can work wonders.

  5. I had a similar experience over 20 years ago. It is pretty awful, and I think your case was more frightening. But I would worry about its legality, I am very, very sorry to say. I am not sure the guy would lose if he decided to sue. (I hope I am wrong.)

    My case: An older guy showed up in my class and he made very inappropriate remarks that disrupted the class. I ended up talking to the dean who in turn told me there was basically not anything they could do without a lot of evidence. He was obviously embarrassed to have to admit his powerlessness.

    In the end, I ran out of patience and ordered him out. He looked like my idea of an exhibitionist, down to the soiled raincoat. Perhaps he returned to that.

    I think that the university’s actions may be comparable to those cases where a university cannot deny racists freedom of speech.

  6. Bijan, I wonder if there’s a US-UK difference. E.g., it is much harder to win a libel case in the us, since the burden of proof is on the accuser.

  7. Hi anne,

    My experience is all in the US across two flagship state schools (i.e.,UNC-CH and UMD-CP). In both cases, the sexual harassment office was professional, helpful, victim oriented, and aggressive. The graphic messages alone should be sufficient to trigger an intervention.

  8. Honestly, this sounds terrifying, and it sounds like the insensitivity in the immediate response was pretty horrendous–but I don’t know what the aggressive student’s rights are. If I’m remembering correctly (from my limited experience with formal complaints that relate to Title IX), at my university, the student being investigated does have some rights to have accommodations made so that they can continue to progress in their degree requirements (e.g., classes) during the course of an investigation, though the complainant also has rights to no contact. But, I don’t know if this is Title IX policy itself, or if this is how my university operates while approaching Title IX issues. And I suspect that how these policies are interpreted could vary. I further suspect that if their was any reason to suspect a continued threat of violence (as it seems from the description), the student being investigated would not be allowed on campus.

  9. I can only hope that you are all doing well – I’ve had so many experiences like this too – in school, at work, on the street, etc etc…. Keep fighting the good fight everyone!

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