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Fil-Am Berkeley student rues slow action vs. sexual harassment

globalnation / Americas
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Fil-Am Berkeley student rues slow action vs. sexual harassment

/ 12:30 AM April 14, 2016
gutierrez addressing the crowd

Alleged sexual harassment victim, instructor and graduate student Kathleen Gutierrez, a Filipino American, addresses her supporters after meeting with the AsianStudies department of the University of California Berkeley and a UC Berkeley anti-sexual harassment representative. JUN NUCUM

BERKELEY, California — An exasperated Fil-Am instructor and graduate student at the University of California (UC) in Berkeley emerged utterly disappointed from a meeting with her department’s faculty and a member of the school’s anti-sexual harassment committee.

The discussion, she said, did not lead to substantial results that she hoped would finally remedy oft-criticized “broken policy” in dealing with sexual harassment cases on campus.

Kathleen Gutierrez, a third-year Ph.D student in Southeast Asian studies reported that her meeting with Carla Hasse, interim lead for the sexual harassment response body on campus, was nothing more than a retelling of already known facts of her case.

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Repeated harassment

Gutierrez was allegedly repeatedly harassed by tenure-tracked assistant professor Blake Wentworth of the same department, who allegedly frequently visit an office for graduate students and make inappropriate and offensive sexual comments and even unwanted physical advances starting February 2015. Guttierez said she it made clear was uncomfortable with what Wentworth was doing.

erin and lawyer

The other complainant, Erin Bennett, and her lawyer, R. Michael Flynn. JUN NUCUM

A university investigation by the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD) in October 2015 concluded that Wentworth violated the institution’s harassment policies and made “unwelcome sexual advances” toward Guttierez.

However, he has avoided termination despite the findings as disciplinary proceedings remained pending more than a year since Gutierrez and another student, Erin Bennett, filed their harassment complaints.

Another victim

Wentworth also was allegedly indirectly responsible for the medical leave filed by another graduate student, Erin Bennett, after the OPHD ruled that Wentworth’s actions “were not sufficiently severe or pervasive” to constitute sexual harassment,” although his conduct toward Bennett was “unprofessional, and exhibited poor personal boundaries.”

Bennett had complained of Wentworth’s alleged inappropriate comments and unwanted touching, and the OPHD decision on her case left her devastated and made her too distraught to return to campus.

In a letter sent by faculty members to supervisors, at least six other students have reportedly given recent testimonials expressing concerns about Wentworth, and several have filed complaints.

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All of the accusations though have been consistently denied by Wentworth, saying the reason the cases against him “have not been treated with severity is that they are, and have been proven to be, fanciful.”

Meeting unresponsive

“I think it is important to be hanging on in this together. I think we need a lot of anger. None of that meeting felt responsive in any way to the current demands that my department is facing—faculty, students, undergrads alike. It’s been too little too late,” Gutierrez recounted after coming out of the meeting with department faculty members, accompanied by lawyer Rachel Lederman.

arabelle malinis

Arabelle Malinis, one of the attorneys of Kathleen Gutierrez. JUN NUCUM

“We were told by Carla Hasse that this was the perfect diagnostic. So what is that supposed to mean? That this is a perfect case study that hopefully will bring the campus forward but that does not account for the dozens of people that have been affected will continue to be affected by (sexual harassment on campus)?”

Although it has been more than a year since Gutierrez and Bennett formally reported Wentworth for harassment, the university says disciplinary proceedings in his case are still pending because Wentworth is a tenured professor.

Gutierrez profusely thanked her many supporters who stayed long enough to hear her speak. She said that the support being given her by the community has been amazing and she wouldn’t be standing strong if not for it.

“I hope that you will continue to be out here and stand for other folks. Encourage other people to come forward for we know that this is not an isolated incident on this campus. We know that this is happening elsewhere and maybe happening in other departments as well. Please encourage other people to come forward because we cannot do this alone,” appealed Gutierrez before breaking to tears. “And I know we’re not. We need people to come forward too if we are going to make a systemic change. This is all unfair, all unjust!”

raly proper-1

Students, friends, faculty, alumni, friends and Filipino community members at UC Berkeley campus rally to show support for Kathleen Gutierrez and other alleged victims of sexual harassment. JUN NUCUM

One of the victims’ attorneys Arabelle Malinis and other attorneys of the Oakland Law Collaborative said they submitted the letter of official complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) and the demand letter to the university.

Termination demanded

Malinis disclosed that one of their demands was to terminate Wentworth after OPHD already found he violated the sexual harassment policy of the university. They also want a change in the sexual harassment policy that allegedly has been ineffective, unnecessarily lengthy and oftentimes traumatic for the victims who come forward.

“This is not isolated. (Sexual harassment) gets swept under the rug over and over again. So to see all this support from community members especially from the Filipino community organizations I think is a very powerful statement,” Malinis said.

In 17 reports to the OPHD involving accusations against 19 employees, 11 cases resulted in termination or resignation. Six cases resulted in other forms of discipline, and two of the disciplinary proceedings are still pending. In seven cases students had filed the complaints, and in six of the investigations faculty members were accused of misconduct.

“Now is the right time for people, potential victims out there, to come forward, for more people even at different campuses to speak up about workplace abuse,” Gutierrez exhorted. “There should not be a fear of going forward.”

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TAGS: Blake Wentworth, Carla Hasse interim lead Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), Erin Bennett, Kathleen Guttierez, Oakland Law Collaborative, sexual harassment complaints UC Berkeley, University of California (UC) in Berkeley Asian Studies Department
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