By Kim Howard
A Williston Central School investigation of a college student teaching intern found that his alleged actions do not meet the state’s legal definition of sexual harassment, according to a report summarizing the investigation.
In the school’s report, the intern denied any improper conduct, though the report does not conclude whether the alleged actions occurred. The intern was “permanently removed” from his assignment, the report says.
The Williston Observer is not naming the intern since the investigation concluded his alleged actions did not meet the legal definition of sexual harassment. The report included no names and listed the intern as “A-1.”
“While A-1’s [alleged] conduct obviously made some of the girls uncomfortable, the allegations do not meet the definition of harassment under the statute,” the report reads.
Under Vermont law, someone’s conduct constitutes sexual harassment only if either “submission to that conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of a student’s education” or if “submission or rejection of such conduct by a student is used as a component of the basis for decisions affecting that student.” The report says there was “absolutely no evidence anywhere” of the intern’s alleged conduct matching those criteria.
On March 26, five students brought complaints about the University of Vermont intern to school administrators. One of the complaints, for example, was that the intern massaged a girl’s shoulders and snapped the front of her bra strap, the report says. The report indicates five students expressed discomfort with the intern.
The intern said that while he touched one complainant on the outside of the arms and shoulders, he did not “make contact with bra strap,” the report says.
“He denied ever touching a student, but allowed that there are ‘tight quarters’ in the classroom and that students may walk into him occasionally,” the report says.
None of the employees or additional students interviewed as part of the investigation expressed concern about the intern’s conduct.
Jeff Wakefield, assistant director of communications for the University of Vermont, said university representatives are unable to comment on any action that has or has not been taken in a case like this because doing so would be a violation of federal privacy laws.
Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney left for vacation shortly after completing the report and could not be reached for comment.
CSSU Chief Executive Officer Bob Mason, who was not part of the investigating team, said that the sexual harassment statute is not the only avenue for addressing alleged inappropriate behavior by school employees. Mason emphasized he was speaking generally about school employees, and not specifically about the Williston intern.
Teachers’ contracts include procedures for dealing with inappropriate professional behavior, Mason said. For non-union employees, the employee handbook outlines expectations of professional behavior and the process by which compromises of those expectations are to be investigated. Employee training includes, Mason said, distinctions between what the “giver” and “receiver” of touch may find comfortable.
“What’s more important is the receiver,” Mason said. “If the receiver finds it uncomfortable, difficult, unsettling, then it’s uncomfortable, unsettling behavior.”