What happens when UH faculty, staff cross the line?

Always Investigating is revealing how often University of Hawaii at Manoa professors and staff are disciplined for crossing the line with sexual harassment on campus.

The details expose the unwanted advances, sexual gestures and comments some students had to endure and how the accused are disciplined.

Last year, Always Investigating first revealed that UH was under a federal microscope over how they handled cases of sex assault, harassment and discrimination. As we dug deeper, we found a system changing with the promise of more protection for students.

But how will that promise turn into action?

Dozens of colleges across the country, including UH, have had federal investigators pore over their internal files and policies for more than a year.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is ferreting out mishandled cases or lapses in policy on sexual assault, harassment and gender discrimination, hoping to end up with better procedures to protect these rights covered by the law known as Title IX.

Always Investigating is protecting the identity of one student who experienced problems first-hand at UH Manoa.

“It was a mess,” she said. “I went to my counselors and I went to professors and nobody really knew what to do. He’s a genius in his field, but he’s an abuser so it put me in a delicate situation.”

Things get especially challenging when the accused is on the UH payroll–a professor, staff or person in a position of academic power over the victim. It adds another layer to an already painful experience.

“They’re in the same classrooms together and a lot of times students have to drop out,” she said.

Just how many sex harassment complaints on campus involve staff crossing the line? Always Investigating been working with UH since last year to bring the sensitive information to the surface.

Collective bargaining and state laws limit how much can be disclosed, but here’s what we found:

  • There have been 20 formal complaints involving sexual harassment against UH Manoa faculty and staff in the past five years.
  • The details spell out unwanted advances, sexual comments and gestures of a sexual nature made targeting a student victim.
  • Most of the complaints are brought to light by students though sometimes other faculty or even the administration steps forward.
  • So far only a quarter of the cases ended in consequences for the faculty or staff, like a handful of five-day suspensions. One lost a department chairmanship.
  • Several others appear to have quit before the cases reached the findings and consequences stages.
  • About a quarter of the complaints are still unresolved, some of them dating back to 2013.

Click here to view a full breakdown of sexual harassment complaints for UH Manoa for calendar years 2010-2014 (.pdf).

We asked UH, do all misconducts necessarily end up with someone back in the classroom or back at their job?

“It depends on the severity,” said UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl. “If there is a violation that is so severe that meets that threshold, that employee will be terminated. A lot of times during this process some employees will see the writing on the wall and perhaps resign ahead of time.”

UH says these cases are not the norm, since there are thousands of employees and tens of thousands of students.

“The staff are trained especially when they’re hired,” Meisenzahl said. “The students are made aware, especially at new-student orientations.”

UH has no policy against professors and students dating. The faculty union, the UH Professional Assembly, says it discourages personal sexual relationships between professors and students and relies on good faith to keep the line clear.

“In the absence of policies, which would have to be consulted with all labor unions, we encourage faculty members to not have personal sexual relationships with their students,” said Kris Hanselman of UHPA, “but we can only advise and we hope people act in good faith.”

As for when the line is crossed, unwanted by the student, Always Investigating asked if students have enough resources to know they can come forward in safety in an intimidating environment.

“Absolutely, because there are so many different avenues,” Meisenzahl said, listing the many ways victims can come forward.

There are lots of resources, but are they being deployed the right way?

Right now, lawmakers are weighing whether to pencil in more money for staff geared toward training and investigation, more gender-equity staff, trainers, investigators and an overall Title IX coordinator.

“Such important services are not regularly funded by UH,” said Teresa Bill, a UH employee who recently testified as a private citizen at the State Capitol. “Funding is always cobbled together from funds begged from this office and that. Students need engaged prevention and awareness training as well as easy access to crisis services. The lack and underfunding of such services is acutely felt by students.”

“If those policies aren’t enacted and not enforced, it’s students like me who are at risk and I don’t appreciate that,” said UH Manoa senior Heather Schulz. “I would love to feel safe at my campus.”

By July of this year, the requirements of everything from the federal Violence Against Women Act and Title IX get even more stringent with demands for better prevention, access to services and more reporting of incidents because of a broadened umbrella of what comprises a violation.

Then there’s the looming outcome of the U.S. DOE federal compliance review and any list of changes that could be demanded out of that.

A U.S. DOE spokesperson says schools under review are “selected based on various sources of information–including statistical data, news reports, and information from students, parents, advocacy groups and community organizations–and are initiated based on a considered and targeted decision that investigation is necessary in order to remedy possible violations of rights.”

UH has preemptively rolled out new policies, most notably one called affirmative consent that changes the “no means no” rape prevention message of past decades into a “yes means yes” policy. A new online course will be part of all new student and staff orientations as of fall 2015.

Always Investigating asked, what’s driving this? Is it response to the U.S. DOE or the new requirements of the federal laws?

“What drives this is there’s a real commitment within the UH system, Manoa and all the campuses. We’re talking about zero tolerance here,” Meisenzahl said. “This isn’t about compliance for the university. It’s about doing what’s right. This is about being comfortable to send our own daughters to the university.”

Affirmative consent could end up in state law as well with state money tied to its enforcement.

The faculty union and others bristle at the threat of money being withheld over enforcing “yes means yes.”

“Legislation attempts to micromanage the Board of Regents on what their policy should be,” Hanselman said. “The policies already reflect what is contained within the legislation, so it is unnecessary. The clause relating to state funding is too broad and raises the question of who will enforce it and what are the standards for enforcement.”

The U.S. Department of Education has no timeline for releasing its findings and any expected changes after digging into the university’s procedures.

Related Links:

  • The University of Hawaii’s updated sexual harassment and sexual assault policies, including the new affirmative consent “yes means yes” policy.
  • HB457: Bill to appropriate money for UH compliance with Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act.
  • HB451: Bill to require UH to establish and enforce an affirmative consent standard for all policies and protocols relating to sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking as a condition of receiving state funds.

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