That pattern emerged from a review of more than 100 cases since 2014 of student sexual harassment complaints against employees of University of Wisconsin System campuses. The Journal Sentinel obtained investigation documents through the state open records law.
The UW System has an umbrella policy outlining use of IT resources, including prohibiting them from being used for harassment, creating a hostile environment or stalking. But that policy does not specifically mention the impulsive world of social media and texting.
Like so many other employers, the UW System is struggling to keep up with technological game-changers.
The UW System Board of Regents at a meeting on the UW-Milwaukee campus Thursday will consider whether policies about reference checks and maintaining records related to sexual harassment should be revised.
Online training to prevent sexual harassment does outline appropriate behaviors in the academic workplace and online, UW System spokeswoman Heather LaRoi said.
At UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, policies focus on acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, not modes of communication, spokeswomen for the universities said.
“We do not restrict employees from using certain forms of communication with students,” UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said. “Instead, our sexual harassment/sexual violence policy defines what behaviors are not acceptable and the mandatory employee training provides guidance using various examples of interactions.”
In cases from across the UW System reviewed by the Journal Sentinel, it was common for a student to initially respond positively to a conversation started by an instructor or supervisor via social media or texting. But when the conversation became inappropriately uncomfortable, records describe student anxiety over how to stop it without making the situation more awkward or stressful.
For example, in one case at an unidentified UW Colleges campus involving a male faculty member and a male student, the investigator noted:
“At the end of our interview with (student’s name redacted) he stated that he only wanted (instructor’s name redacted) to know that people are watching him, and he didn’t want to cause turmoil in (redacted instructor’s) personal life.”
At UW-Oshkosh, student employees of the campus police department alleged an officer made unwanted sexual advances, requested sexual favors and behaved in a sexual manner toward them.
One student said he “added her” on Facebook and Snapchat, and while she didn’t remember giving him her phone number, she began receiving text messages from him.
She eventually blocked him on the social media apps because she felt he was “really weird and inappropriate, asking her to hang out and do things.”
Experts say the use of social media for sexual harassment hasn’t really been researched. But with so much attention focused on sexual harassment through the #MeToo movement, such research could be forthcoming.
Social media not to blame
A UW-Madison associate professor of communication science who studies how individuals use communication technologies to develop romantic relationships agreed with McGlone that the problem is behavior and lack of impulse control, not social media and texting.
Offenders would find another way to harass if they didn’t have digital tools, said Catalina Toma, the professor whose research focuses on the social and psychological effects of online dating, social networking sites, email and instant messaging.
Digital technology, she said, is “a vehicle for people who would have harassed anyway.”
Toma said she was surprised offenders would use texting and social media because they are recordable. “Once you send a message, you no longer own it; the other person does and can use it against you.”
In many cases within the UW System, students provided investigators with copies of text messages and Facebook messages sent by their alleged harassers.
“If it’s planned, it’s pretty stupid to use email, texting or recordable media,” Toma said.
People don’t harass because it’s easy; they harass because there’s a power dynamic, Toma said. “If anything, I’m more partial to view technology as making this behavior more visible than before. It’s a way of capturing it rather than causing it.”
Instant messaging may create a false sense of intimacy, she said. Someone in a position of power who is interested in a relationship with a student could misinterpret polite messages as more intimate than intended.
“People who harass do not think of themselves as harassers; they think that their behavior is acceptable,” Toma said. “With text-based messages, there’s a lot more space for the imagination to take hold.”
Helping students recognize and handle sexual harassment through social media and texting may be the next wave of awareness, following efforts to define consent for sex in the context of campus sexual assault.
At UW-Madison, freshman and incoming students’ “U Got This” training covers any type of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, and describes both support resources and reporting options, according to McGlone.
Training scenarios are more focused on student-to-student conduct, she said.
Many graduate and professional students are also required to undergo new mandatory employee training that the campus rolled out last summer, which includes workplace scenarios depicting sexual harassment.
Here are examples of how social media and texting were used in cases from UW System campuses:
Social media sites
At a two-year UW campus — the campus name was redacted — a male student accused a male faculty member of contacting him on the social media dating site Grindr, which helps gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people hook up.
Once the instructor knew the student could be contacted through Grindr, he offered to meet with him in his dorm room, according to the university’s investigation.
The instructor allegedly touched the student during class and sent pornographic images and messages to him through Facebook Messenger.
During his interview with the university investigator, the student shared his Facebook messaging exchanges with the instructor, but did not provide physical copies.
The instructor initially told an investigator that he didn’t know what Grindr was when he created his account, but later admitted he met the student through Grindr. He said the student suggested he change his physical profile status on Grindr to “above average.”
The instructor said he researched sexual harassment online to figure out if he had done anything wrong and concluded he did not. He denied sending pornographic images.
The investigation found that the instructor likely violated the sexual harassment policy, initiating contact with a student through a social media dating site. It was unclear whether the instructor was still employed by the campus.
At UW-Washington County, a student reported concerns about text messages received from an employee whose care she was under as a counseling patient.
She provided their text messages to a university investigator. While she said she felt uncomfortable with the sexual nature of the texting, the counseling relationship gave her stability that she did not have in her home life.
The counselor’s texts included a valentine and text at 5:30 a.m. in late January, which the student said made her feel uncomfortable.
The counselor said the text messages were fabricated, but the investigator concluded they weren’t. The counselor, who also was an instructor, no longer is employed at the campus, according to college.
At UW-River Falls, a male academic staff employee sent text messages to a female student employee, telling her she’s “a beautiful girl” and “hot stuff.” And, he texted, if she wasn’t a student he would ask her out.
He also showed her funny YouTube videos on his phone and text messages, standing close to her with his belly on her back.
After finding out she had been on a date, he one day asked her, “Why do you have to make me jealous like that?” He then told her she was supposed to stay single until she graduated and he could ask her out then.
The university found a pattern of unethical and unprofessional behaviors, including the text conversation in which he expressed his desire to date her if he had met her under different circumstances.
The staffer’s appointment at the university is to end in August, according to the university.