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Where is the line? ‘Creepy behavior’ and actionable harassment

On Behalf of | Feb 24, 2022 | Education Law

Sexual harassment can be a serious problem in school or at work. Many students and faculty members at UCLA breathed a sigh of relief when a former postdoctoral fellow and lecturer was arrested in early February.

The man allegedly emailed an 800-page manifesto and posted videos in which he threatened dozens of people at the university. The manifesto contained racist threats and over 12,000 instances of the words “bomb,” “kill,” and “shoot,” according to the Associated Press. He was arrested by a federal SWAT team in Colorado and is being held without bail.

The man had been put on “investigatory leave” in 2021. He had allegedly sent pornographic and violent content to some of his students.

Described as ‘inappropriate and creepy’

UCLA hired the man after he studied at Duke and Cornell, and the AP wondered if there had been any signs portending his actions when he was at either of those prestigious universities. Unfortunately, it does seem that some signs were there.

Graduate student classmates at Duke and Cornell told the AP that he was obsessive and excessive. He allegedly harassed and stalked women. For example, he learned one woman’s schedule and began showing up and texting things like “I’m here, where are you?” He was described as “inappropriate and creepy.”

The AP found other troubling signs. One online class review by a UCLA student read, “I have no idea how this guy is still teaching.” AP reporting also turned up allegations of negligence by students at all three schools, claiming that each university had allowed the man to keep teaching despite concerning conduct.

Two former students at Duke told the AP that the man’s strange behavior was widely known in their philosophy department, but they made no official report. They felt they would not have been supported by the faculty.

“There would just be this feeling of ‘um, I feel uncomfortable’ or ‘that was creepy,’” one of the former students said. “By the time I left the program, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him.”

The AP collected other stories of “odd interactions,” “maniacal laughter” and a campaign of incessant text messages and emails involving students.

His YouTube channel contained a video entitled, “Dead White Professors (Duke University remix).” Duke apparently took no action.

Who should have intervened and what should they have done?

An expert on campus violence and mental health told the AP, “No one would look at that kid and say, ‘Oh, he’s fine.’” He added, “typically someone like this didn’t just appear out of nowhere.”

Should administrators at Duke or Cornell have recognized the alleged creepy behavior as a precursor to more serious and even criminal acts? Should UCLA have taken action earlier, before his behavior escalated?

A better background check by UCLA might have turned up the issue. That could have included interviews with classmates, students and supervisors. UCLA could have reached out to Duke and Cornell to find out whether there had been any complaints or conduct that concerned anyone. According to the AP, it is not clear UCLA did this.

When schools or workplaces allow harassment to continue after being alerted to the problem, they may face liability for allowing a hostile environment. Was UCLA negligent in hiring this man?

Leigh Law Group represents students at colleges and universities throughout California.