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A Campus Sexual Harassment Claim Puts Administrators to the Test

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Woodruff Hall at Castleton University - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • Woodruff Hall at Castleton University

A tenured Castleton University professor who was suspended last year for sexually harassing a student is fighting the school's finding against him. Christopher Schwaner's case offers a rare glimpse into a personnel misconduct investigation of the sort conducted behind closed doors, after which the accused professor typically disappears with no explanation.

Sarah Schindler complained last year that Schwaner was stalking and sexually harassing her. The university dismissed the former allegation but agreed with the latter: It ruled that the math prof had violated school policy by sexually harassing Schindler, who was one of his students. He served as Schindler's adviser as well.

Schwaner, 38, maintains that he did not harass Schindler, 25, who notified the university two months after she graduated in May 2015. He contends that he was denied due process and was wrongly sanctioned as the result of a flawed university investigation.

Lawyers for the Vermont State Colleges system, which includes Castleton, have defended the investigation.

Based on the sexual harassment conclusion, university president David Wolk issued an order that banned Schwaner from campus in 2015. Since then, Schwaner has missed out on some $60,000 in compensation. He remains employed and has drawn pay of $5,856 so far in 2016, according to public records, but is not listed as teaching on the course schedule at Castleton this semester. College officials would not discuss details of Schwaner's employment status. Meanwhile, Schwaner, a member of the state colleges faculty union, continues to push for back pay and to recover his legal costs. He also wants the finding against him to be overturned and the ban lifted.

Lawyers for VSC and Schwaner are facing off next month at a hearing in front of the Vermont Labor Relations Board, with which Schwaner has filed a grievance. Since those proceedings are public record, and both sides have submitted numerous documents to support their arguments, the conflict is more transparent than it would have been.

Timely, too. The case is being heard as college administrators around the country ratchet up their efforts to discourage and punish sexual misconduct on campus under federal Title IX, which bans sex discrimination, including sexual harassment. VSC defines sexual harassment as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that doesn't necessarily involve physical contact. It might include requests for sexual favors or attention in exchange for better grades or threats of bad grades, or other types of sexual pressure that create a hostile environment. 

Advocates for victims say sexual misconduct has been swept under the rug on college campuses for too long. Some academics counter that new, stricter protocols are in some cases at risk of violating civil liberties. Two years ago, 28 Harvard University law professors signed an open letter and sent it to the Boston Globe, which published the missive on its website. It read: "Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation."

Part of Schwaner's defense rests on that argument.

"We don't think that, based on the evidence, the suspension was warranted under any circumstances," said Theodore Parisi, Schwaner's lawyer, in a brief interview with Seven Days. "There was a total lack of due process."

Last Friday, Wolk defended the school's handling of the sexual misconduct complaint in his office at Castleton's Woodruff Hall. A bell pealed on the hour, and chatting students with backpacks walked the leaf-strewn paths under the late afternoon sun. Nearby, stately historic homes lined the quiet main street of the tiny college town 15 miles from Rutland.

It was Wolk who decided to sanction Schwaner in October 2015. He said student and personnel privacy rules prevent him from responding to any specific questions about the case. But Wolk said the process is fair and that while sexual harassment complaints are rare on campus, they are taken seriously.

Students deserve protection, and the rules are ultimately intended to keep them safe, Wolk said.

"I think to myself, Is this the kind of experience that I would want for my own kids? And that's how I would approach the job," Wolk said. "By the same token, I exercise fairness and open-mindedness with those who are accused of misconduct, as well."

The key people in the case — Schwaner and Schindler — did not respond to requests to be interviewed. But the Labor Relations Board's records and court documents flesh out their respective allegations.

In concert with the campus complaint, Schindler accused Schwaner of stalking in filings at Vermont Superior Court in Rutland in July 2015. The court granted her petition for a protective order but dismissed it a couple of months later by mutual agreement.

Schindler's court affidavit and an attached statement that she made to Castleton Police Chief Peter Mantello during a May 2015 interview detail her complaint. Castleton University wellness coordinator Amy Bremel was present during the police interview, which ended with the police chief encouraging Schindler to apply for a protective order in court.

Schindler did so and expressed fear that Schwaner might retaliate against her.

"Due to his behavior I feel that he has crossed so many boundaries and is kind of obsessed with me. His behavior scares me and has caused me emotional distress," Schindler wrote in a July 8, 2015, request for an order against stalking at Superior Court in Rutland.

In response to the court, Schwaner and his lawyer said there was no stalking.

"Both of these filings can have devastating effects on the defendant's life and to a large degree could threaten the defendant's reputation and ability to earn a livelihood," Parisi wrote in a July 24, 2015, court document. He continued, saying that the allegations should not be taken lightly and could "destroy the defendant's life as he knows it. The defendant denies and will continue to deny all" of the "specious allegations that are contained in the petition and the complaint that the plaintiff has filed with Castleton State College."

Schindler grew up in Thetford Center and graduated from Castleton on May 9, 2015.

According to her version of events as per the court papers, she met Schwaner in August 2013, when she was a junior math major at Castleton. He was her academic adviser and professor and taught her six courses over the next 18 months. He asked frequently about her boyfriend, made numerous comments about her "ass" and told her that she was his "dream girl," according to her account in court papers.

He bought her presents, took her out for Chinese food, visited her off-campus apartment and texted her frequently, Schindler said in court papers. At one point, he promised they would be married someday, according to Schindler's court affidavit and her account of their relationship in the May 2015 police report.

The attention was unwanted, but he continued to text and contact her in other ways right through graduation, according to Schindler's statements in court papers.

"I continuously made it known to Christopher Schwaner that I was not interested in a relationship with him more than professor/student," Schindler wrote in her July 8, 2015, stalking allegation to the court.

In court papers, she described an incident she said occurred in November 2013, but her accounts of what happened differ.

According to the May 19, 2015, statement Schindler made to police chief Mantello, she was playing the game Free Flow on her cellphone and became frustrated. Schwaner was with her and also playing, and handed her his cellphone. "Ms. Schindler accidentally scrolled through the pictures and saw a totally naked picture of Mr. Schwaner holding his penis in his hand," the police report by Mantello reads.

Schindler's own handwritten July 8, 2015, account for the court describes the allegation differently. "In November 2013 while conversing with him, he handed me [a] phone on which he had scrolled to a picture of his erect penis and said, 'You wouldn't want to see this,' while pushing his phone into my face. I said nothing then but collected myself and went back the next day to request/threatened that he needed to stay professional."

Through his lawyer, Schwaner said neither version of events is truthful. "She swears that both these statements are true ... yet each contradicts the event that plaintiff is swearing to have occurred," Parisi wrote in court papers. "Such a patent misrepresentation contained in an affidavit under oath clearly supports the defendant's concern about the plaintiff's obvious lack of credibility."

Mantello asked Schindler if Schwaner ever touched her inappropriately or in a sexual manner. "She said no. She has come to believe that Mr. Schwaner is obsessed with her," the police report reads.

On February 22, Schwaner went to Schindler's apartment and said he was "in love with her," according to the police report. She told him she did not return those feelings and asked him to leave. He did.

VSC rules prohibit romantic or sexual relationships between professors and their students and view them as misconduct.

Through his attorney, Schwaner denies that there was any romantic or intimate relationship between him and Schindler.

"No," Parisi told Seven Days. "Absolutely not."

He and Schwaner contend that it's Schindler who stalked Schwaner, not the other way around.

They also complain that during the college sanction process, they were not allowed to interview witnesses against Schwaner. Investigators did not call his witnesses and ignored his allegations of Schindler's "perjury on legal documents," according to Schwaner's grievance filing at the Labor Relations Board.

"You can't even cross-examine a witness," Parisi said. "You have to sit there, twiddling your thumbs."

Like Wolk, William Reedy, general counsel for VSC, insisted the process is fair. Each party is interviewed by two investigators and allowed to have legal counsel present. Each party is allowed to respond to a final report and to appeal the findings.

Schwaner appealed unsuccessfully to VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding, and then to the Labor Relations Board. That board allows for cross-examination of witnesses and additional challenges to evidence, according to Reedy.

Its hearing is set for December 8 in Montpelier.


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