Questions surround college’s response to sexual harassment allegations

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Questions surround college’s response to sexual harassment allegations

Policy 311

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UPDATED 12 September 2012

Although a committee investigating a Johnson State College student’s accusations of sexual harassment by a JSC professor issued its findings in May 2012, repercussions of that report continue to be felt on the college’s campus more than three months later.

Former JSC student Nicole Daigneault filed a complaint against humanities professor Fred Wiseman in March 2012, alleging that he violated Vermont State College Policy 311, which prohibits sexual harassment.

Investigators, guided by VSC Policy 311 Coordinator and Associate Academic Dean Jo Ann Lamore, filed their report regarding Daigneault’s complaint in May.

An official summary of those findings from the Office of the (JSC) President,  provided by Daigneault’s attorney, David Sleigh, noted, “While the investigators did not find that Ms. Daigneault’s overall academic environment at the college was objectively intimidating, hostile or offensive, the Investigators arrived at the conclusion that harassment based on sex as a protected category occurred. Further, they concluded that there is ample evidence of ‘Related Unprofessional Conduct.’”

In a subsequent letter from JSC President Barbara Murphy to Daigneault, also provided by Sleigh, a part-time instructor at Lyndon State College, Murphy said she “accepted” their findings, and that administrators would “initiate the next steps set forth in that Policy.”

In that May 17 letter, Murphy also wrote “I am confident that the Policy was well-followed, and the investigators completed a thoughtful and diligent process.”

Wiseman told Basement Medicine on Friday, Sept. 7, that he had been advised by his attorney not to say anything regarding the allegations. “As anyone who knows me and my career will note, I have been a very strong advocate for the rights of the oppressed and am very familiar with the laws, policies, regulations and ethics regarding oppression of all types, including Policy 311,” he said.

Sleigh filed a “verified petition to obtain discovery before commencement of action” in the Lamoille Superior Court on Daigneault’s behalf on Aug. 29.

The petition says that Daigneault is “seeking damages for violations of Vermont’s Public Accommodation Act (VPAA),” which “prohibits individuals from being harassed based on their protected status when they try to access public accommodation.”

The petition also says Daigneault is trying to discern “what, if any, remedial action the College has taken in response to its findings.”

Answers to that question have been anything but specific with administration,  union officials and Wiseman citing confidentiality constraints.

In an emailed statement, Murphy said, “As you know, we – Johnson State College and I, as its president – cannot comment on student or personnel matters and we do not comment on threatened litigation. I can say, and want to say, that we take allegations of sexual harassment very seriously. Our paramount objective in such cases is student safety and we resolve any issues with student well-being as our goal … All the actions we may take in any particular case may not be readily apparent for a variety of reasons, including confidentiality of student and personnel matters.”

Vermont State Colleges Vice President and General Counsel William Reedy told Basement Medicine he could not “even confirm or deny any particular Policy 311 matter, let alone disclose any records from Policy 311 investigations. Federal student confidentiality laws, state records laws and collective bargaining agreements constrain our response in this regard.”

JSC Faculty Federation Grievance Officer and Professor of Hotel/Hospitality Management Todd Comen would not confirm reports that Wiseman had filed a union grievance after the investigators issued their findings.

“The Faculty Federation maintains a policy of strict confidentiality concerning all such matters,” Comen said.

The lack of information regarding the allegations, the administration’s response to the investigating committee’s findings, and Faculty Federation actions – if any – has frustrated some JSC students.

A petition appeared on campus Thursday, Sept. 6, calling for Wiseman’s immediate dismissal after unconfirmed reports that he would not be leaving the JSC campus until after the 2012 fall semester.

The students’ petition states in part, “It is upsetting to students that a professor with such serious allegations raised against him has been allowed to continue as a professor on campus for the duration of the academic semester.”

JSC senior Liz Spier said the students initiating the petition feel unsafe having Wiseman on campus.

“They feel disregarded by the administration,” Spier said.  “They feel violated.  They feel like there’s no safe zone anymore.  The fact that the staff has been told not to talk about it is far more concerning, the fact that the administration has swept it under the rug.”

It is unclear at this point how many students have signed the petition.

JSC Humanities Chair Paul Silver said Wiseman “always seemed extremely hardworking and productive. He works very hard to help students get through their workload, especially those with trouble. He works with them more than a lot of us.”

Silver said “in his experience,” he couldn’t see Wiseman as a threat to anyone on campus.

Basement Medicine’s attempts to reach Daigneault  have been unsuccessful.

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