by Eric Ginsburg
Four months after Greensboro College opened a sexual-harassment investigation following heckling at a student play, the play’s director is disappointed by how her college handled it.
When Greensboro College launched a Title IX sex-discrimination investigation after complaints of sexual harassment during a student play at the beginning of the school year, playwright and director Michaela Richards hailed her school’s response as “awesome.”
Richards, a senior who wrote and directed the play It Stops Here about sexual violence that incorporated personal stories and aspects of the school’s policy, told Triad City Beat in September that she was “very happy” with how quickly the school had responded. But now, after the investigation concluded, she’s frustrated with how the small, Methodist college handled the follow-up.
Greensboro College promptly started looking into behavior by first-year students who allegedly directed rude, demeaning and abusive comments and gestures towards specific members of the cast, including during a scene about rape.
But towards the end of the semester, Richards and the cast members still hadn’t heard anything about the conclusion of the investigation, she said. Upon meeting with college President Larry Czarda, Richards was dismayed that neither she nor any of the cast members would be informed of the results of the investigation.
Richards and her student cast had spent about three months studying and discussing the school’s policy on sexual harassment and violence as they prepared for the performances, and were interviewed for the investigation, too. But the process still mystified them, she said.
“Imagine someone who has not read our policy or who doesn’t understand the process saying ‘I was sexually harassed,’ and how they are going to be treated in an investigation,” Richards said. “I was confused and I know so much about it.”
Greensboro College spokesperson Lex Alexander told Triad City Beat when it began the investigation that the results likely wouldn’t be public. But Richards and her fellow students involved in the play — the ones who the abusive and explicit comments were directed towards — believed that as victims, they would be privy to that information.
The confusion stems from the fact that the college opened the investigation on its own accord and therefore didn’t classify anyone as a victim.
Triad City Beat requested an update on the case on Dec. 27, and the school ultimately released a statement internally on Jan. 14 and made it available to TCB six days later after notifying the school’s board.
“In September, Greensboro College opened a Title IX investigation into reported behavior on the part of some audience members at a student theater production for first-year students — specifically, remarks directed by audience members toward individual cast members — to ascertain whether any of that behavior constituted sexual harassment or sexual intimidation in violation of the college’s Title IX policy,” the statement said. “There was no individual complainant in the case; the college acted institutionally on its own initiative.”
The investigation confirmed, “one or more instances of verbal harassment and/or intimidation had taken place in violation of the policy,” but went on to say that, “because of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, the college is unable to provide details regarding the imposition of sanctions in this case.”
Initially it seemed that the college’s rapid response proved it took the incident seriously, Richards said, but because actors who were insulted and heckled were not classified as complainants — and were not told that they weren’t counted as victims — poses a problem.
“In some ways it is good that the school did the investigation but the fact that nobody knows the results of the investigation… makes me think the investigation might not have gone as well as I would’ve wanted,” she said. “I think that there needs to be a more open communication with people doing the investigation and complainants.”
At the very least, she said, people in a position like her cast, who bore the brunt of the harassment, should be told during the investigatory interviews that they wouldn’t know the results. Richards said when she inquired about the process in December, she was told that students on the receiving end could open up their own investigation as complainants.
But at that point, her cast was worn down. By the end of the semester, the students wanted to move on.
“You see and hear that a lot from victims, that the schools just put them through so much that they — I don’t want to say ‘give up’ because they did so much, but they’re forced to quit,” Richards said. “It just gives the school the upper hand yet again.”
Alexander said the process took longer than anticipated because there were so many people to interview in relation to the incident, but emphasized that Czarda discussed the matter with students and parents almost immediately and said the incident was discussed at multiple faculty and board meetings as well as open forums and individual meetings.
“The nature of the incident was such that the college decided it would file an institutional complaint rather than an individual complaint,” he said on Tuesday. “It was not because the college intended to keep anybody in the dark.”
Alexander added that students were told they could file their own complaint, but said he didn’t now when that occurred. But going forward, he said Greensboro College changed its procedure to make sure there is “very specific communication with apparent victims.” This was the school’s first Title IX investigation since implementing a new policy, he said, and “it was definitely a learning experience.”
“We tried to be as transparent as possible with this case within the bounds of the law,” Alexander said.
Richards said she is “definitely disappointed” that Greensboro College didn’t handle the situation better.
“At this point its not about the kids who were the harassers,” she said. “It’s more about the policy. Victims are victims and we need to treat them that way, and work with them and not against them. That’s exactly what the school did not do.”