Claims of sexual harassment and discrimination involving educators in positions of authority are often investigated in a less publicized manner than similar cases involving celebrities and politicians.
To look at how such cases are handled at the University of Georgia, The Red & Black spent two years investigating reports of harassment made against professors and others with direct contact with students.
The investigation reveals a process that is slow, unclear and ultimately determined by just three Equal Opportunity Office employees.
Between 2011 and May 2018, those investigators looked into 42 cases that dealt with potential violations of the Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment policy, which governs behavior of university employees.
Thirteen of 42 cases led to violations being found, according to findings letters and documents obtained by The Red & Black through multiple open records requests.
These investigations are the responsibility of the university’s Equal Opportunity Office, a staff of six who manage university investigations into cases involving discrimination and harassment.
“I have to say, had UGA fired me for the first relationship, I would’ve completely understood that."
-Richard Suplita, former psychology professor found in violation of NDAH policy
The Red & Black specifically looked into cases involving university employees’ direct interactions with students.
University employees who committed these violations faced sanctions ranging from termination of their employment to “no contact” directives, NDAH training and formal warnings.
There was no information in the documents explaining how sanctions for those violations were assigned.
As for the other 29 complaints, no violations for the policy were found, so no sanctions beyond recommendation to review the policy were given.
Policy and procedure
The NDAH policy was adopted by the university in 2011 to handle cases of professors, faculty and staff at UGA who have been accused of discrimination or harassment.
A single EOO employee investigates the university employee’s case after allegations have been made against them.
Generally, the investigation includes communicating with the complainant, alleged victim and respondent of their rights, obtaining evidence of the alleged claims from the complainant and other witnesses and allowing all parties involved to review and respond to all evidence collected in the case, according to the EOO website.
If a violation of the policy is found, sanctions can range from mandatory counseling to probation, suspension or termination, according to the EOO website.
According to the website, sanctions are determined based on the “severity and nature of the discrimination or harassment” as well as the amount of evidence found supporting the claim. History of past cases can also affect the sanctions assigned if a violation is found.
No other information is provided regarding how sanctions are decided upon given the circumstances of individual cases. When The Red & Black asked for more information, the university spokesperson said EOO investigators determine the sanctions on “a case-by-case basis.”
‘A case-by-case basis’
Former psychology professor Richard Suplita is one of four employees who was either recommended to leave or not eligible for rehire after resigning from the university as a result of their NDAH policy violations.
Suplita’s first case, which concluded in 2012, involved a consensual relationship with a student.
According to his findings letter issued by the EOO after investigating his case, Suplita received a letter of reprimand, recommendation for his promotion consideration to be withdrawn and instructions not to reach out to the student involved.
Two years later, Suplita was the subject of another EOO investigation. He received a recommendation of separation from the university and was directed to cease contact with all students. According to the resolution letter from 2014, the allegation was that he “entered a prohibited consensual relationship and engaged in sexual harassment.”
Suplita said the relationships in 2012 and 2014 were “different in every way,” considering the first one was with a student and the second one was with a teaching assistant. He also said his supervisor approved the second relationship.
“I have to say, had UGA fired me for the first relationship, I would’ve completely understood that,” Suplita said in an interview with The Red & Black in February 2018.
In 2016, an entertainment and media studies associate professor was found in violation for having “pursued and engaged in sexual relationships” with her subordinates. Rather than being fired, however, the employee “agreed to resign” from the university without eligibility for re-hire, according to the finding letter.
The findings letter said the sanction assigned to the professor in 2016 was based on evidence “including [the professor’s] concession that these relationships occurred.”
Suplita’s 2012 findings letter doesn’t say he admitted to the relationship, though he has since talked openly about having that relationship. His 2012 findings letter does say he told the student they “would need to withdraw from the class in order to continue with the relationship.”
In the 2012 case, EOO employee Kristopher Stevens said in the findings letter Suplita “appeared to understand” the prohibition from being in a relationship with a subordinate, yet he “still pursued a romantic relationship with a student enrolled in [his] class which violates the policy.” Stevens went on to also warn Suplita that if a similar matter were to occur they would consider this case in future sanctions.
Suplita wasn’t the only one who received a warning and ended up with another violation.
Michael Holosko, a former professor of social work who left the university in May, also received two violations and was investigated three times in four years.
The Red & Black dived deeper into his cases and questioned the university about how he remained teaching after multiple violations. Read more on his cases in “Open Records, Closed Doors” to get a deeper understanding of the NDAH policy through the findings letters of his investigations.
Thirteen of the 29 dismissed cases detailed accounts of offensive “comments” being made to students by university employees. These cases were dismissed because the EOO investigator did not find sufficient evidence supporting the idea the employee was in violation of the NDAH policy.
In April 2016, a complainant told EOO their entomology associate professor was sexually harassing and discriminating against students based on gender, among other allegations.
Stevens investigated the case and concluded the associate professor had not violated the policy because he did not “reasonably interfere with an individual’s work or educational performance” or create an “intimidating, hostile or offensive” work environment, according to the findings letter given to the professor.
Despite the lack of a violation, Stevens warned in the letter the professor’s comments, if continued, could “create the perception [he is] sexualizing the environment.” Stevens said the comments could be considered a violation of the policy if they continue.
Similar warnings were included in most of the other 12 cases, recommending employees to review the NDAH policy and govern their comments accordingly.
Despite having only six staff members, the EOO office governs not only the NDAH policy but also several other discrimination policies that affect the university community.
Of the six employees, only three signed off on the 42 cases, with Stevens being the investigator for 19 cases. Claire Norins signed off on 11 and Janyce Dawkins signed nine.
EOO employees investigate NDAH and Title IX cases on their own. However, NDAH sanctions are determined by the sole investigator whereas Title IX sanctions are determined by an administrative officer or by a panel of UGA employees unaffiliated with the case.
Suplita said he had a problem with having the same investigator for his first case assigned to his second case as well, claiming the investigator could have been biased against him.
During a February interview, Suplita detailed a particular incident when Stevens asked him if he was familiar with the Charlie Brown Peanuts character Pig Pen. Suplita said Stevens told him something similar to “there’s this dust cloud of dirt and suspicion that follows you around so there’s got to be something at the heart of that.”
We reached out to the university and asked multiple times to speak directly to an investigator or anyone involved with EOO but were repeatedly denied.
Though Suplita requested another investigator, his request was denied and Stevens handled both cases.
“They had other staff investigators who could be assigned to the case and look at it with fresh eyes, and they refused to do that,” Suplita said in February 2018.
In a 2014 interview with The Red & Black, Dawkins said, “There are times when there’s not enough staff and other things are put on the backburner, but in no instance will we not investigate an allegation of discrimination or harassment.”
Past and future changes
Since the NDAH policy was adopted by the university in 2011, the EOO website listing the policy has been amended 13 times. Details of these amendments are not available on the website.
According to executive director of marketing and communications Greg Trevor, the university reviews the policies and procedures “on an ongoing basis.”
UGA isn’t the only one making changes to their policies on sexual harassment — the Georgia Board of Regents has also made changes and updates to its policies, each of which affects every public college in the state.
The documents from 2011 and the documents from 2018 don’t show significant difference in how investigators handle each case, though the number of cases decrease each year starting in 2013.
The outcomes of those cases and the language investigators use in the finding letters do not show a pattern for how investigators impose sanctions and determine violations nor does the policy offer direction.