The following is a guest blog post by Tess Koenigsmark. Tess is a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut, where she double majored in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Political Science. She was heavily involved in sexual assault prevention and reproductive justice activism and hopes to build on those experiences by pursuing a career in social justice.
Please note that views expressed by guest bloggers represent solely their own. CT NOW believes in open dialogue and multiple perspectives and welcomes (civilly worded) thoughts different from our own, but we do not necessarily endorse any writing done by the author elsewhere.
In 2011, Wendy Wyler, a student at Southern Connecticut State University, filed a sexual harassment complaint against her music professor, David Chevan. According to the complaint, Chevan led her into a storage closet and sexually propositioned her while standing in front of the door, blocking her exit. Chevan’s lawyer continues to claim that the incident Wyler describes as truly frightening was nothing more than a misinterpreted conversation that lasted only several minutes. Wyler, whom I had the opportunity to speak with via phone conversation this week, paints a much more sinister picture of a series of inappropriate behaviors which culminated with the confrontation in the storage room. Wyler says that Chevan initiated a “grooming process” weeks earlier, starting with him offering her private lessons and solos. While Wyler was at first pleased with the extra attention, as any musician would be, Chevan’s behavior soon became increasingly inappropriate. For example, he told her she was sexy and divulged that he had an affair with a student at a different university. At the urging of a friend, Wyler decided to file a complaint with the university. Afterwards, she learned from a former classmate that she was not the only female student subject to Chevan’s harassment, and her female classmates had suspected that she would be Chevan’s next target.
In a just world, one where all forms of sexual violence are taken seriously, this story should end here. Wyler makes the brave choice to come forward about the harassment, another student corroborates her claim, and a serious disciplinary process against Professor Chevan begins. It ends with a ruling that Chevan is no longer welcome at SCSU. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world, and that is not what happened. Wyler faced a series of major hurdles from the minute she decided to come forward, and her struggle continues today. Chevan was eventually found guilty of violating the sexual harassment policy, but his punishment was a mere one-week suspension and he continues to teach at SCSU today. As unsavory as that is, even such weak disciplinary action would not have happened without Wyler’s steadfast perseverance.
When Wyler first called SCSU’s human resources department, their response to her complaint was to tell her to “think about it and call back,” leaving her shocked and confused. She wasn’t undecided or uncertain about what had happened to her, and never claimed to be. Later on, she was told that there simply wasn’t anybody to take on her complaint. The position of the Title IX Coordinator, who is responsible for handling sex-based discrimination complaints, was empty. When somebody from the university finally agreed to meet with Wyler in person, they discussed what had happened for two hours, and concluded by telling her that there wasn’t anything they could do for her, but that they wanted her to “feel heard.” After all of this, a new university employee took on her complaint and launched an investigation. This led to Chevan being found guilty of violating sexual harassment policy and his one-week suspension.
Wyler’s complaint became public in January of 2012, when she filed a lawsuit against Chevan and another against SCSU. After filing the suit, Wyler’s attorney received numerous complaints from women who were harassed by Chevan, going back up to ten years. While Wyler has now settled the lawsuit against Chevan, mostly in order to cover mounting legal fees, the case against SCSU is still pending.
Sadly, Wyler’s experience is not unusual. Title IX, which was passed in 1972, prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools and is meant to ensure that women and girls have equal access to education. Schools must address sexual harassment and sexual violence appropriately, and failure to comply can lead to a federal government investigation. Despite the potential repercussions, many colleges and universities fail to address these issues until forced to do so. That’s exactly what happened at Yale, where the Office of Civil Rights conducted a 15-month investigation into the university “for its failure to eliminate a hostile sexual environment on campus, in violation of Title IX.” Wyler hopes that if she wins the case against the university, it will trigger a Title IX investigation, and the university will be forced to make changes.
Those changes would hopefully include reforming the process through which sexual misconduct claims are handled. Wyler considers all the effort she’s put into her case worthwhile, and encourages other victims to go public with their stories, but her experience is certainly not one someone would wish on future victims. Considering the outcome of coming forward – a continued lack of support and discouragement from university officials and a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator – what evidence is there to offer other victims that reporting harassment is worth their while? Colleges and universities continue to give lip service to supporting victims, claiming they have no tolerance for sexual misconduct. Yet they can’t encourage victims to come forward, to go through what is generally acknowledged as a difficult process – sharing a traumatic story with university officials, being prepared for backlash from other students, having their actions investigated along with the perpetrator’s – if the punishment for perpetrators is so negligible to call into question its effectiveness as a deterrent for future bad behavior. It’s as if the punishment is almost inverse to both the trauma of harassment and the secondary trauma faced by going through the process of making the complaint. The path of Wyler’s complaint through university bureaucracy was so twisted that if SCSU were to treat the complainant and the accused equally, officials would have had to ignore Chevan and not return his calls for several weeks before he was allowed to mount a defense.
Sexual harassment is a serious offense that detrimentally affects women’s ability to obtain an education. However, the implications of a case such as this one are broader than sexual harassment alone. Sexual harassment is only one rung on a continuum of sexual violence that includes stalking, sexual assault, and domestic violence. How an institution responds to any of these problems lends insight to how it will handle others. There are several reasons for this; firstly that allegations regarding any of these acts are generally handled through a similar process, one that would hopefully involve the Title IX Coordinator. Secondly, even though the offense may vary, institutional callousness towards one victim of sexual violence does not bode well for others. The lines between different types of offenses are not as clear as people may think. Too often, perpetrators escalate in their behaviors. Harassers can turn into stalkers. Stalkers can turn into rapists. Domestic violence can include any of these behaviors. If a university truly wants to deter any of these offenses, it should be concerned with all of them. When I asked Wyler if she had any concerns about SCSU’s handling of sexual assault claims, she expressed concern that the university’s lack of action could in some cases allow violence to escalate where it could have been prevented. Of the university’s indifference to her ordeal, she said it was like “they wanted me to walk out of that closet room bruised and bloodied and then they would have listened.” Wyler was not raped, and fully understands the difference between her experience and sexual assault. However, her experience should make one question how SCSU does handle sexual assault, an even more delicate situation, if a single sexual harassment complaint overburdened their current system.
The silver lining in all of this is that after fighting alone for much too long, Wyler has found support within the SCSU campus. After hearing about her case several SCSU students banded together to form a new student group called “SCSU Speaks.” They hope not only to force action in Wyler’s case, but also to change how the university handles all sexual harassment violations. Although Wyler graduated in 2012, she is an integral part of the group. While their top priority is getting Chevan removed from campus, a list of their other demands can be seen here. They have already had one rally, attended by approximately 100 students, and their momentum is growing. Along with local sources, several national news outlets have covered their story, and they have been invited to speak at Georgetown Law’s Title IX Conference. Not too shabby for a fledgling organization.
Professor Chevan should have been removed from campus years ago (to be specific- at least two, and possibly ten). Wendy Wyler’s case against Southern Connecticut State University is one more piece of evidence in an epidemic of sexual misconduct and violence at colleges and universities across the country. As long as schools fail to take Title IX seriously, women do not have access to an education equal to that of their male peers. No woman’s pursuit of education should be interrupted by harassment or violence, but if it is, schools should act quickly to ensure the least disruption to the victim’s life and studies. And if a basic sense of compassion and regard for their students’ well-being isn’t motivation enough, schools can count on dedicated campus reform advocates, such as Wyler and SCSU Speaks, to provide the extra push.
More information on SCSU Speaks can be found at the group’s Facebook page or Tumblr, and they can be contacted through email at SCSUspeaks@gmail.com. Their next rally will be held on Monday, October 7th at 1:00 p.m. Protestors will be marching to the Title IX Coordinator’s office to demand that SCSU meet their first three demands: removing Chevan from campus, issuing a formal apology, and forming a committee to reform sexual harassment policy. Those who can’t attend can still offer their support by signing their online petition. In addition, the group hopes that its efforts will encourage other survivors of harassment to speak out, and they welcome people to contact them anonymously to share their stories.