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Discrimination case delayed, sexual harassment report forgotten in Title IX staff transition at Utah State University

A female student who said she was sexually harassed by professor Tyson Chappell waited nearly two years to receive a draft report of the school’s findings.

Utah State University Eastern's main campus is located in Price, Utah. The school operates under the direction of Utah State University, headquartered in Logan, Utah, and offers more than 60 degree programs, including 23 bachelor's degrees.
Utah State University Eastern's main campus is located in Price, Utah. The school operates under the direction of Utah State University, headquartered in Logan, Utah, and offers more than 60 degree programs, including 23 bachelor's degrees.
Utah State University

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State University representatives said staff changes are to blame for delays on two reports addressing allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment against a biology professor at Utah State University Eastern in Price.

The school’s policy says reports regarding sex-based discrimination should be completed by the affirmative action and equal opportunity office within 60 days. But a complaint filed by a male student who said he was discriminated against by 43-year-old professor Tyson Chappell took 10 months to be answered. A female student who said she was sexually harassed by the same professor waited nearly two years to receive a draft report of the school’s findings.

The school found no evidence of discrimination against the male student, who claimed the professor gave special attention to attractive women in the class. However, the school found, based on a preponderance of evidence standard, that the professor "sexually harassed" the female student while she was enrolled in his anatomy and physiology class in the spring of 2017, citing text messages that were sexual in nature and frequently included invitations for the student to meet him alone in his office, as well as the professor’s own admission that he hugged the student and held and caressed her hand.

The professor has a right to appeal the decision released to the student in a draft report of the findings before a final report is issued.

Tyson Chappell is an associate professor of biology at Utah State University Eastern in Price.
Tyson Chappell is an associate professor of biology at Utah State University Eastern in Price.
Utah State University

Chappell would not comment on specific allegations but said in an email to the Deseret News, “I fully support a student’s right to make these accusations if they are willing to go through the legitimate procedures and protocols established at Utah State University. I have full confidence in the school to handle such cases and concerns respectfully, properly and ethically.”

The university reorganized the office that handles discrimination and harassment complaints and made multiple staff changes in the wake of last year’s investigation into allegations of unchecked discrimination and sexual misconduct within the piano program. At the same time, the school has been under federal investigation by the Department of Justice for the past two years regarding its handling of alleged sexual misconduct.

Colleges across the country are grappling with the best way to handle complaints about violations of Title IX, a federal law aimed at protecting students at universities from sex-based discrimination. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are 305 open Title IX investigations being conducted by the Department of Education at colleges and universities across the United States, including at the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University.

In an email to the female student on March 22, director of the affirmative action and equal opportunity office Alison Adams-Perlac wrote, “The AA/EO Office has been in a leadership transition for the past year. When a recent records request was made in this case, we realized that, although we had completed an investigation, we had not yet issued a report of our findings.”

The draft report of findings issued to the male student on March 13 cited the 60-day rule, but said, “the AA/EO director may adjust deadlines upon good cause. In this case, there was good cause to depart from timelines as the office underwent leadership changes and was understaffed for the majority of the investigation.”

Both reports were issued shortly after the school was contacted by the Deseret News.

Utah State University spokesperson Tim Vitale said decisions about disciplinary action are only made after the investigation and appeals process is completed and a final report has been filed.

“Because the report only recently went out and is technically still a draft, that process is still unfolding,” Adams-Perlac wrote in an email to the female student. “Once the written response period ends, I will be sharing the final report with Tyson’s department so that appropriate action can be taken to address his behavior.”

Since the alleged sexual harassment took place in the spring of 2017, Chappell has continued to teach at the university. His anatomy and physiology classes are required for multiple health-related degree programs, including nursing.

In December of last year, the professor announced publicly on Facebook his relationship with a woman who was a student in his spring 2018 class. Previously, in a May 2018 complaint letter sent to the university affirmative action and equal opportunity office, the male student accused Chappell of flirting with that woman during class to the point that it was distracting. Two other students in that class told the Deseret News they noticed the behavior and thought it was inappropriate.

In his May 2018 complaint letter, the male student also alleged that Chappell "liked" photos of students on social media and sent emails to his female study partner that made her uncomfortable. The emails, reviewed by the Deseret News, contained comments such as, “You’re such an amazing student and person... You’re really amazing,” and, “I love that you are in my classes.” The female study partner told the Deseret News she was uncomfortable with the emails and likes on her Instagram photos because her male study partner did not receive the same attention.

“I feel vulnerable as a female, and I have no drive to go to class,” another one of Chappell’s students told the Deseret News. “I make sure to never go to his classroom or office alone.”

In its draft findings report, the school said there was no evidence of gender-based discrimination against the male student after reviewing three of his exams and evaluating grade adjustments made by the professor during the prior four semesters. The report did not draw any conclusions about the male student’s allegations of flirtation.

“Please consider how easy it is for anyone to make allegations without evidence,” Chappell told the Deseret News, noting that the classes he teaches are very difficult and students who don’t do well may be motivated to “say such horrible things.”

After receiving the report, the male student said he filed a complaint with the Department of Education saying the school did not investigate thoroughly enough and the 10-month delay allowed Chappell to retaliate with his own claims that the student stalked and blackmailed him, allegations which the student denies.

Vitale said student records, including complaints against professors, are private under federal law, and therefore the school cannot comment on individual cases.

“AA/EO and Title IX address issues of discrimination. We have extensive processes for grievances, for appeals, for chain-of-command, for channels to complain, open-door-policies at multiple levels,” said Vitale. “In general terms — which are important to understand — sometimes cases can become extremely complicated as new claims and serious new counterclaims can continue to come forward.”

‘A hostile learning environment’

When the female student enrolled in Chappell’s anatomy and physiology class more than two years ago, she was 20 years old. At the time, Chappell was 41 years old and married.

The student and her professor started sending each other frequent emails and Facebook messages, first about questions she had from the class. Soon however, the conversations became personal. The student and her professor talked about music, drugs, the student’s mental health struggles and pornography.

The Deseret News reviewed messages between the student and her teacher during the spring 2017 semester and found many examples of sexual suggestions and innuendos as well as comments about the student’s appearance.

According to a draft report of findings, Chappell told an investigator that there was a “fantasy element” to his conversations with the student, but he was not pursuing a sexual relationship with her.

In the messages, Chappell said repeatedly, "I'd like to help you succeed in class anyway possible," and constantly invited her to visit his office for extra help.

"I'm your professor, but for certain things I'd rather you think of me as a friend," he said in one message.

“I mean I already don’t think of you as just a student. So you’re not JUST that, but that is one thing that you are to me. Get it?” he wrote in another.

The female student told the Deseret News she was initially flattered that Chappell was being so attentive, but later felt pressure to continue engaging with him so she could do well in the class.

“I would also like to pass these next exams, and I would also like an answer to the second half of my last question,” the student wrote in a message to Chappell on April 11, 2017. “Will you keep the conversation appropriate and will you keep your hands to yourself this time?”

Utah State University defines sexual harassment as “any sexual attention that is unwanted” including comments about a person’s body or clothing, unwelcome touching, giving letters and subtle pressure for sexual activity among other things. Based on a preponderance of evidence standard, meaning it is more likely than not that harassment occurred, the school determined in its draft report that the professor’s “verbal, written, and physical conduct was unwelcome and sexual in nature, and it created a hostile learning environment.”

Lisa Anderson, executive director of Atlanta Women for Equality, a nonprofit that provides free representation to women who have faced sex discrimination at school, said that if it appears a professor is flirting with students or favoring students based on their gender and attractiveness, it can create a sexually hostile environment for everyone else in the class and can interfere with students’ education.

“The school is legally required to respond promptly and equitably to abuses of power,” Anderson said.

According to the student, after she reported the alleged harassment, she was interviewed by an investigator. She said the school’s Title IX coordinator at the time, Stacy Sturgeon, offered to allow her to retake the class online, but she had already passed and didn’t feel it was necessary. She said that when she chose to take another class from Chappell last summer instead of driving to a different campus, Sturgeon told the student to stay in touch about concerns.

The student ended up dropping the class, in part because she was not prepared and in part because she was uncomfortable being around Chappell, she said.

“Being a professor with very difficult classes, I have been accused of any number of discrepancies,” Chappell told the Deseret News. “When I read these cruel complaints about me there is a very high probability that they are coming from students that didn’t want to put the time in to studying, so I am the bad guy.”

In November, the student sent an email that was never answered to Sturgeon asking for an update on her case. Before the student spoke to the Deseret News in March, she did not know Sturgeon had been removed from her position as Title IX coordinator following the investigation into allegations of gender discrimination and sexual misconduct within the school’s piano program.

Sturgeon told the Deseret News she left the university in May 2018 and declined to comment further.

According to Title IX experts such as Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, when a student makes a claim about sexual harassment or sex-based discrimination, the school is required to investigate and come up with a finding as to whether such occurred.

During the investigation process, the school is supposed to provide ongoing notice to the complainants and appraise them of reasons for delays. If investigators determine harassment or discrimination did occur, the school is required to intervene and eliminate the inappropriate behavior, and regardless of findings, the school should provide accommodations to help students complete their education.

There is no specific criteria for firing or disciplining a member of the faculty, according to Carter, but schools typically choose to terminate a faculty member when that person has repeatedly abused their teaching authority and the school has calculated that removing the teacher is the best way to remedy the situation, Carter said.

After this story was posted online, Vitale issued the following statement:

“We deeply regret how long it took to produce those reports, and we have recently taken many significant steps to prevent delays from happening again. USU has more than doubled the size of the Title IX office and resources. We’ve added a prevention specialist, a new Title IX coordinator, and a new executive director of the office that oversees Title IX," Vitale said. "We are also now working to hire a person to provide support for those involved in the Title IX process. The staff has been working double time to improve processes for Title IX and discrimination complaints and to resolve outstanding cases. We are on track now to prevent these kinds of delays from happening again.”