College charges in limbo
TMCC accused of due process violations in its handling of dueling harassment complaints
Truckee Meadows Community College’s top student government official, Lee Massey, filed a harassment complaint in May, and the complaint was never acted on. But when two verbal complaints were later filed against Massey, he was suspended from office.
Massey was given a hearing, but neither of the complainants against him showed up, nor were written complaints presented as required. Nevertheless, the hearing officer found against Massey for failing to respond to the non-existent written complaints.
Meanwhile, Massey’s original complaint remains dormant.
Massey went from high school dropout to the top student body office at TMCC, but his achievement was short-lived. Student government proved contentious.
Massey, 35, was elected TMCC student government board chairman in April. (This office is called student body president in most schools.) He ran for office because, as a political science major, he thought he could contribute to and benefit from the position. At the time, he didn’t think he had anything to lose, since nobody else was running.
But he found himself under frequent attack and during the spring 2006 semester, he filed a written complaint with TMCC against student Senator Judy Plank for harassment and against Associate Dean Anthony Williams for tolerating her behavior.
In his complaint, Massey charged:
• Plank “made false statements about me and the student government. She has been spreading lies about me around campus, and now around town.”
• Plank “has been disruptive [at] the student government’s meetings.”
• Plank appeared at a Board of Regents meeting and “cussed me out for being there.”
• Williams condoned Plank’s actions by saying that they were “OK since that’s the way things are done in government.”
Massey attached to his complaint copies of an e-mail message he received from Plank and a letter he sent to Williams. His complaint also said that he had reported some of Plank’s actions to the Reno Police Department and that he did “not feel comfortable or safe” because of Plank and because of Williams’ condoning of her conduct.
TMCC vice president Juanita Chrysanthou forwarded the complaint to Williams two days later. Williams never acted on it, and he declined comment on whether he turned it over to another administrator for action.
Four months later, without ever getting action on his original complaint, TMCC President Philip Ringle placed Massey on paid administrative leave from his student government post on Sept. 29 due to allegations of misconduct in two verbal complaints. Ringle wrote in a letter to Massey that “the College has withdrawn consent for you to perform the duties assigned to you as ASTM [Associated Students of Truckee Meadows] chairperson” pending a hearing.
Massey’s complaint against Plank and Williams was filed in May, during the spring semester. Ringle’s action against Massey came during the current semester. While complaints against Massey have been acted on with the suspension and a hearing, Massey’s complaint against Plank and Williams remains unresolved.
Massey has stated in writing that Williams, who oversees student government, wanted to remove him from his duties as student government chairperson. According to the student constitution, Massey can only be removed by impeachment, student recall or expulsion. Williams would not comment on any specific student allegations.
Ringle acted to remove Massey after student government public relations director Matthew Marsala made a verbal sexual harassment complaint against Massey on Sept. 26. Student government director of finance Marcia Gebhardt made a verbal harassment complaint on an uncertain date stemming from a student government argument with Massey in July. Their complaints were acted upon quickly, even though Gebhardt effectively recanted by failing to follow up with a written complaint. She later left student government.
Williams said that allegations of sexual harassment differ from other harassment allegations in the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) Code. Investigations into sexual harassment cases can begin upon verbal complaint. Investigations of other types of harassment begin only after a written complaint.
However, the NSHE Code states that no hearing can be held until all complaints of alleged misconduct are submitted in writing, and an Oct. 13 hearing was held without written complaints.
Williams said that hearings on claimed acts of misconduct aren’t conducted with the purpose of the accused presenting a defense, but to determine if evidence warrants moving forward. Yet, the hearing officer wrote in his findings that “the accused did not provide any evidence contradicting the underlying allegations involved in this matter.” Of course, since there were no written complaints—the only admissable kind—there was nothing for Massey to contradict.
At the hearing, Williams presented the students’ allegations. Neither complaining student appeared or submitted a written complaint. Since the code required a written complaint in non-sexual harassment cases, the hearing process may have been improper.
As for evidence, the NSHE Code says no evidence other than that received at the hearing shall be considered in the decision. The hearing determined that Massey’s administrative leave would be extended and that an investigation would proceed based on the verbal accusations presented by Williams. Thus, the decision to proceed was made solely on a verbal statement of the verbal complaints, made by someone other than the complainants—hearsay, in legal terms.
Massey contends that the hearing officer ignored his evidence. Although he presented character-reference letters, the hearing officer found “the letters didn’t address specific allegations"—which, of course, were not available in writing in advance for Massey to prepare a defense.
In his official findings on Oct. 23, hearing officer Steven Bale dealt with why Williams moved on the complaints but did not explain why he, Bale, agreed to hear the case without receiving a written complaint, as required by the Code. He conceded that Massey was removed from office without any complaints being filed. But Bale said, “When the allegations of possible sexual harassment were made clear to Mr. Williams, it was his obligation to act on behalf of TMCC to protect students.”
However, the code does not contain any exception to the written-complaint requirement “to protect students” or otherwise. In fact, the code seems to anticipate the issue by requiring a written complaint in order to hold a hearing: “The complaint shall be in writing, shall be signed by the complainant and shall, to the extent reasonably possible, specify the date, time, place, person or persons involved and the circumstances of the alleged prohibited conduct, including the name or names of persons who may have witnessed the alleged prohibited conduct.”
Marsala’s complaint was put into writing 13 days after Massey’s hearing had adjourned, so it is not part of the hearing record or the basis for the decision to proceed against Massey. By the time it was filed, the hearing and decision was over.
Matthew Marsala’s complaint against Massey lists the following accusations:
• “Lee simulated sexual actions with writing utensils on two occasions.”
• “Lee told me that he ‘gets aroused when I adjust my armrests on my chair'.”
• “Lee told me that he ‘sniffs my chair after I sit on it'.”
• “Lee ‘talked about having a threesome with a former student government officer and myself.’ During that same incident he said he wanted to ‘ride’ me. He also ‘proceeded to rub my shoulders in a sexual way’ saying ‘You know you want me'.”
• “Lee has said that he loves my ‘sweet ass'.”
• “Lee ‘implied that he had done something sexual with an oversized pen in his office'.”
• “Lee has constantly said how much he wants me.”
“These allegations are comical, absurd and juvenile,” Massey said. “I’m not gay, at least not that I know of.”
But the allegations could have serious consequences for Massey: “I get expelled if they find I’ve done anything wrong.”
Marsala declined to comment about his complaint. His witnesses include the student government advisor and Gebhardt. Massey was denied access to witness statements against him. He said that he was told by Carlos Romo, who is investigating the charges for TMCC, that he needs a court order to read them.
Massey claims Marsala and Gebhardt benefited by making allegations against him. He said that both accusers were facing a judicial review to consider impeachment due to dereliction of duties. Gebhardt resigned from student government at the end of October.
“Why does Dean Williams ignore one complaint and not another?” asked Massey.
Williams said he “handles all allegations and complaints for all parties.” Speaking hypothetically, he said that when a written complaint is received, he has discretion to “move forward or not,” to “resolve matters informally,” or “keep it on the books.”
According to the NSHE Code, Williams may resolve written complaints by mutual agreement of parties, permitting the accuser to drop the complaint, or allowing the accused to accept disciplinary actions.
Hypothetically, should Williams handle a complaint that alleges he has engaged in misconduct?
“I don’t handle my own complaint,” Williams said. He said that such a complaint would be handled by his supervisor or someone else. When asked if he had forwarded the complaint against himself to another college official for action, Williams said he could not discuss the specifics of any complaints.
Williams conducted a judicial review of student government on Plank’s behalf. Her claims were dismissed. She resigned from student government in June. Massey said his written and verbal requests for action on his complaint, filed earlier than those against him, have been ignored.
After Massey was put on administrative leave, Plank was reinstated in her senate position in October.
Massey finally sent a letter of grievance to Ringle, charging Williams with discrimination and willful incitement. Massey, who is African American, charged Williams with discrimination in ignoring complaints by Massey but taking action on complaints against Massey.
He requested that members of the Board of Regents and President Ringle provide “outside observance to ensure fairness” at his proceedings. Unlike Massey, Williams was not placed on leave. In fact, of all the players in these charges and countercharges, Massey was the only one suspended.
Williams said that the investigating officer is well qualified to clarify the facts for all parties. He said a “thorough investigation to determine if there is evidence to support the allegations or not” is underway.
Massey has requested a public hearing. He has also filed complaints with the American Civil Liberties Union, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the NAACP, citing TMCC discrimination. Longtime ACLU of Nevada figure Richard Siegel declined comment on the specifics until he learned more about the case, but said, “The ACLU, of course, is concerned about equal protection and due process within a public university. And students elected this person … so it is a concern.”
“It saddens me to see a lot of hard work to build a strong student government go to waste over selfish ambitions,” Massey said. “I can’t believe I need to hire an attorney to stay in community college.”