At the request of the student involved in this story, initials only will be used for identification.
Last month, a student walked into the office of The Puyallup Post and offered to tell her story.
It turned out to be one not terribly uncommon: a young woman unsure of whether or not her growing misgivings about the behavior of her male professor were warranted or not.
Then, fear of what would happen if she brought forward a complaint, followed by disappointment at what she saw as a lack of support in the response she received from college administration once she did.
The aim of this article is not sensationalism or to pit student against administration, but rather to shed light on how a series of seemingly small unwelcome incidents can have a lasting impact, and how rules, policies and procedures inform the actions college administration may take.
The experiences that forced a complaint
T, a former student of Pierce College adjunct professor Kristopher Gutierrez, said that the students who came forward to file a complaint against him last quarter were not the first.
She’d done so herself during spring quarter of 2018.
T was 17 at the time, a Running Start student attending Gutierrez’s introductory physics class after having successfully completed his Math 107 class the quarter prior.
T said that it wasn’t until she took the second class from Gutierrez that his behavior became noticeably different toward her, so much so that other students commented on it, asking her why he acted so strangely around her.
T said that at first, she wasn’t sure if Gutierrez was trying to flirt with her or if he was just being friendly. She thought he knew that she was only 17 and assumed that meant the latter.
Within a few weeks of the start of the new quarter, however, Gutierrez’s actions and words were making her feel decidedly uncomfortable.
It started with his requests for her to stay after class to discuss homework or projects after other classmates had left, which T declined to do.
Then, she said, Gutierrez began repeatedly showing up in places such as the cafeteria or hallway where she was sitting or walking by herself.
Once, he sat down next to her in the cafeteria and initiated conversations with her regarding his own personal relationships. He asked T if she had a boyfriend. When T told Gutierrez that it didn’t matter whether she did or not, he responded that he’d be surprised if she didn’t, because she was so pretty.
After this, T began texting some of her male friends, asking them to walk with her to and from class so that she wouldn’t be caught alone by Gutierrez.
Around this time, T also told her mother, who encouraged her to reach out to someone in administration to report Gutierrez’s behavior.
T met with Holly Gorski, district title IX coordinator and vice president for human resources, a few days later. After writing down the details as she remembered them, T was asked by Gorski how she wanted to proceed. T replied that she wasn’t sure, as she didn’t know what normally happened in cases like this.
T was told that because this was the first time such behavior on Gutierrez’s part was reported at Pierce, and because he hadn’t actually assaulted her, there was not enough justification to fire him or remove him from the classroom.
T said she told Gorski that she didn’t necessarily want Gutierrez fired but that she also didn’t want his behavior to continue. She also said she was afraid that if Gutierrez was asked directly about her allegations, he would know who it was who had filed the complaint. She feared he would retaliate by giving her a bad grade.
Ultimately, T was advised that she could wait until the end of the quarter to officially file the complaint, at which time Gutierrez would be spoken to about his behavior and retrained in how to properly interact with students.
After T read in The Puyallup Post about Gutierrez’s removal from the Puyallup campus in response to two students’ complaints against him, she said she assumed that promised conversation and retraining never happened.
She continued to attend class the rest of the quarter and did her best to avoid Gutierrez. She said she felt let down by administration; they didn’t seem to care what happened to her. And she wondered: what would it have taken for someone to listen to her complaint more seriously?
Pierce’s policies and procedures
In relating her experiences with Gutierrez, T called his behavior harassment. Administration doesn’t see it as such.
Harassment, sexual or otherwise, is so narrowly defined in Pierce’s policies and procedures manual that the criteria for achieving it is fairly difficult, and most complaints simply don’t fit the definition.
An act must be explicitly sexual in nature or be a direct sex- or gender-based incident and be severe, persistent or pervasive enough that anyone else in a similar situation would also consider the act objectionable.
As most complaints do not fit the harassment definition, they are not eligible for the types of responses some may wish to see put in place, such as an immediate firing.
While Gorski did confirm that a complaint against Gutierrez was filed last spring, she said the complainant asked to remain anonymous at the time. As such, she would not comment on T’s allegations specifically, citing confidentiality concerns for both the student and faculty member.
Gorski said that in a situation similar to T’s, the described behavior of the professor would warrant a response by the school. That response most likely would have been a conversation with the faculty member pertaining to appropriate methods of communication with students.
Gorski said that a routine part of conversation with any student who files a complaint is explaining the college’s non-retaliatory rule, which states that it is against the law – and against Pierce’s policies – to retaliate in any way in response to a filed complaint, such as lowering a student’s grade.
She acknowledged, however, that even after being provided this information, many complainants still choose to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation, which can hamper the administration’s ability to conduct a thorough investigation into a complaint.
Gorski pointed out that even if an investigation were launched, and all allegations proven true, the result may still not warrant a disciplinary action if it is not a violation of Pierce’s policies.
“Not everything that makes people feel uncomfortable is a violation of our policy, or is legally sexual harassment,” she said. “It can be something we don’t want to happen, and inappropriate, and generally considered not okay and still not be considered a violation of school policy.”
Without a distinct violation of policy, no disciplinary action can be taken.
So, where does that leave students like T?
Regarding the complaint that was filed last spring, which Gorski did not confirm as T’s, she said she feels like it was addressed in the way the person who brought it forward wanted it addressed.
T views the outcome of her filed complaint quite differently.
She said that if she had been informed of Pierce’s non-retaliation policy she would have pushed further with the complaint process and not waited until the end of the quarter to file one.
T said the only contact she’s had with Gorski since their original conversation was a phone call in which she was informed that Gutierrez was not teaching summer quarter classes so no conversation could be had with him until he returned to teach in the fall.
T has no proof that an official report was ever filed on her behalf or that Gutierrez received the promised retraining conversation.
She’s angry at what she sees as a lack of action on administration’s part that resulted in two more students having to come forward with stories of what they, too, deemed harassment by the same professor.
Gorski acknowledged that, because of constraints on faculty who are assigned to handle student complaints, those complaints sometimes don’t get the time and attention they deserve. Responses take too long and there is currently not a robust training system in place regarding faculty-student interaction.
She said that prior to the removal of Gutierrez, Pierce was re-looking at the college’s policies surrounding harassment. Administration plans to hire a full-time Title IX and 504 Coordinator, who will report to newly-hired Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Director Charlie Parker.
In the meantime, T said she was left feeling powerless over her situation. She viewed her professor as an authority figure with power over her and feels he abused that power.
“I kept wondering, Why is this happening to me? And why can’t I do anything about it?”,T said.
She described her feelings about the encounters with Gutierrez as ones of humiliation, intimidation, fear and shame.
When asked for a response to T’s description of her experience, Gorski paused before saying quietly, “I don’t want any student to feel that way. Pierce doesn’t want any student to feel that way.”
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