K-State ruled student’s report of off-campus sexual harassment not a violation of policy

Niki Bernett, graduate student in English, said she was sexually harassed off-campus, but the university said the harassment did not violate the student code of conduct. (File Photo by Sarah Falcon | The Collegian)

Off-campus sexual harassment and the theft of eight textbooks.

Both harassment and theft are behaviors that constitute misconduct against Kansas State’s student code of conduct, according to K-State Student Governing Association bylaws.

Both are crimes.

One was enough to get William Heinen, graduate student in English, suspended from K-State. It was not the sexual harassment, Niki Bernett, graduate student in English, said.

Bernett said she was sexually harassed by Heinen on Sept. 29, 2015, at Auntie Mae’s in Aggieville as well as outside of his apartment and she reported the incident to her program director on Sept. 30, 2015. The Office of Institutional Equity was forwarded the information on Oct. 6, 2015.

“Mr. Heinen was suspended from campus because of books theft, which reads to me that books are more important than my body and safety,” Bernett said. “No actions were taken as far as sexual harassment. It was literally just the books. The books were worth more. It was, ‘We are going to suspend him for stealing books, but not for anything else he has done.’”

A request by the Collegian for whether or not Heinen was suspended due to theft was sent to Sarah Pride, SGA attorney general and junior in family studies and human services, and Andy Thompson, assistant dean of student life. The request was then forwarded to Steve Logback, associate vice president of the Division of Communications and Marketing.

“The information requested, if and to the extent it exists, is protected from disclosure pursuant to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act,” Logback said in an email statement.

Heinen did not respond to the Collegian’s Dec. 6 request for comment as of 10 p.m. Dec. 7.

A confidential letter

In a confidential letter addressed to Bernett on March 24, 2016, by the K-State Office of Institutional Equity’s Administrative Review Team, the team said they had completed the evaluation of Bernett’s complaint and determined that “the (review team) did not find that Mr. Heinen engaged in any conduct that, if true, would be considered sexual harassment in violation of the policy.”

The Administrative Review Team, which consisted of Danielle Dempsey Swopes, former senior investigator; Karin Westman, head of the department of English; and Thompson, had, according to the letter, determined that Bernett’s allegations of sexual harassment do not warrant any further investigation or review under their policy.

The university policy states “this policy may apply to allegations of discrimination, harassment or retaliation for behavior that occurs off campus … Off campus occurrences that are not related to university-sponsored programs or activities are investigated under the policy only if those occurrences relate to discrimination, harassment or retaliation alleged on campus.”

However, Bernett said she did feel that on-campus harassment continued after the initial incident, such as Heinen constantly repeating the word “vagina” in inappropriate classroom settings, even when it did not apply to the class material.

Bernett also said she felt uncomfortable around Heinen and told the Office of Institutional Equality that, but because she did not use the word “scared,” the review team did not find that Heinen provided a risk to her.

In the letter, Bernett was told other individuals were interviewed about “potential concerns with Mr. Heinen” and they too expressed feeling uncomfortable around him. However, according to the review team, “the concerns were focused almost entirely on Mr. Heinen’s alleged awkwardness in socializing with classmates and not due to any conduct (or pattern of conduct) of a sexual nature.”

Bernett said she was not only uncomfortable, but she also told the review team that she was considering leaving K-State. She said the only reason she is still here is because of the help she received from the English department, not from the university.

The letter said the incident and other behaviors were not “severe or pervasive so as to create a sexually hostile environment on-campus or in a university-sponsored program.”

Bernett, who is also a sexual assault survivor, reported to the Office of Institutional Equity in a letter that on Sept. 30, 2016, a day after the harassment, Heinen said to her, “I assumed you were a lesbian. Aren’t you supposed to be a lesbian? Don’t rape victims hate and fear all men?”

Back to the books

Bernett said she felt Heinen retaliated against her for making the harassment complaint when eight of her textbooks were stolen from her office.

According to the letter, a police investigation found that Heinen admitted he stole the books because he needed money. The investigation also found that Heinen stole books of others who had not filed a complaint against him.

Because of this, the letter said the review team did not find that the theft of textbooks was retaliation for Bernett’s complaint.

With that said, Heinen was allegedly suspended for the theft after a trial held by the SGA student review board. The judicial branch was not able to confirm or deny these claims.

“He is suspended, to my knowledge until fall of 2017, because theoretically those who he stole from will graduate in May of 2017,” Bernett said. “I read that as, he can come back when I’m gone because K-State wants his money.”

Not worth a lawsuit

Bernett said she is not filing a lawsuit or joining an existing lawsuit against K-State because it is not about the money and her situation was very different than the three women who were sexually assaulted and who did file lawsuits.

“Based on my conversation with Ms. Simon (the lawyer representing the three other students), I have decided that I want to take my story to the press in the hopes that it brings awareness to others, to show that these problems have affected other cases, that other survivors at KSU are not alone,” Bernett said in her initial email to the Collegian.

“Especially in response to Gen. Myers’ comments and your article (on Nov. 30), I want to share my story to confirm that … The Collegian and ‘the media’ are NOT presenting ‘inaccurate claims’ or ‘misinformation about our polices’ and that you have consistently reported the truth and exposed KSU’s policies and procedures for what they really are; problematic,” Bernett continued.

Bernett said she would still like to see a policy change and the initial harassment and the review team’s decision still affect her to this day and has re-shaped her entire graduate school experience.

“I would like to see K-State’s policy change to where they do investigate off-campus incidents because they do affect campus life,” Bernett said. “They do affect people on campus. They affect people who attend this campus, who are part of this campus, regardless of where those people are … this policy severely hurt these three other women and it did not protect them in the way that it should have. I want other people to know they are not alone and I want to empower other survivors in any way that I can.”

Bernett said she did not believe K-State ever made the policies clear to her until she received the letter in the mail in March, five months after her first complaint was filed.

“I don’t think this policy was made clear and I understand it now — I don’t agree with it, but I understand it,” Bernett said. “I disagree with the argument than even though it happened off campus that it didn’t affect me on campus, because it did. It affected both (employment and education), even though it happened off campus.”

Bernett said she disagrees with what is written in the policy, as those who are harassed or assaulted on campus still have affects from those incidents on campus, even if it is indirectly.

“That doesn’t mean that anybody’s feelings or experiences should be invalidated or that they should be told they just have to deal with it or they’re a liar or that it’s not a problem (because it happened off campus), because it is a problem,” Bernett said. “Specifically that they say it is not severe or pervasive enough to impact them because it does. It’s about how the survivors feel.”

While the allegations do not constitute sexual harassment to K-State, the university did allow Bernett to switch the section of one of her two classes with Heinen and provided her with a Center for Advocacy, Response and Education advocate as well as resources to counseling, Bernett said.

“I think K-State could have taken some more responsibility,” Bernett said. “They say that we’re a family, but I don’t feel that we’re a family. I feel like K-State was out to protect themselves in this case. They were more worried about Mr. Heinen suing them than my safety. And I don’t think that should be the case.”

Hi, I'm Kaitlyn Alanis, former news editor for the Collegian and a May 2017 graduate in agricultural communications and journalism. I have never tried a hamburger and I hate the taste of coffee, but I love writing stories and sharing what I learn with our readers. By writing for the Collegian, I can now not only sing along when the K-State Band plays "The Band is Hot," but I also know that most agriculture students did not grow up on a farm, how to use an AED to save someone's life and why there is a bust of MLK Jr. outside of Ahearn Field House. Thanks for reading!