By Annemarie Mountz
The relationship between faculty and students is fundamentally one of trust. Unfortunately, that trust was recently breached by a former faculty member at Penn State Hazleton, raising serious concerns within the University community.
On June 23, Shrikrishna Singh, former professor of chemistry, was found guilty of two counts of indecent assault of an 18-year-old female student, stemming from incidents dating back to April 1996. On Aug. 6, he was sentenced to between three and 23-1/2 months in jail, followed by one year of probation. At the sentencing, Judge Patrick Toole said Singh's conviction arose out of violation of "the entrusted relationship between a teacher and student." Singh began serving his term, which includes work release, on Aug. 14.
According to official testimony presented during the trial, the encounters began when Singh offered to help the student study midway through a chemistry course he was teaching. Prosecutors charged that Singh manipulated the student into visiting his home under the pretext of helping her with her studies. They accused Singh of using his authority and psychological pressure to make the illicit sexual advances toward the student.
The student testified that Singh wouldn't take "no" for an answer, that he isolated her from her boyfriend and friends, and that he convinced her parents that he was helping her academically.
"Students should feel free to seek tutorial help from faculty members without fear of receiving inappropriate attention," said President Graham B. Spanier. "This sort of conduct is damaging to the type of environment we want at Penn State. We're not going to tolerate it and will not hesitate to take action if it's warranted."
According to University policy, sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:
* submission to such conduct is a condition for employment, promotion, grades or academic status;
* submission or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment or academic or other decisions affecting an individual; or
* such conduct has the purpose or effect of interfering unreasonably with the individual's work or academic performance or creates an offensive, hostile or intimidating working or learning environment.
The complete policy may be found on the Web at http://guru.sp.psu.edu/POLICIES/Ad41.html. There also is more information about sexual harassement, including a list of names of resource people, on the Affirmative Action Office Web site. Go to the Penn State home page at http://www.psu.edu/ and click on Diversity, or access the page directly at http://www.personal.psu.edu/dept/aaoffice/sexual_harassment/index.html.
"The University is committed to preventing and eliminating sexual harassment of students -- and of faculty and staff as well. I strongly encourage the reporting of any concerns or complaints about sexual harassment whenever and wherever it occurs," said Spanier.
Any member of the University community who experiences sexual harassment should report the incident to a resource person designated by his or her department or unit's vice president, dean or campus executive officer; an administrator in the department or unit; or a staff member in the Affirmative Action Office or Human Resources Office. The Campus Life Assistance Center also has been designated to receive sexual harassment complaints from students.
The message from the University is clear: Abuse of the teacher-student trust will not be tolerated. Anyone who violates that trust will disciplined as appropriate, regardless of academic credentials or achievements and independent of any criminal prosecution. Discipline may include dismissal from the University, as was the case with Singh.
When the allegations against him came to light in May 1996, the University notified him of the charges and gave him an opportunity to respond, which is the procedure established under University policy.
"Professor Singh was presented with the allegations and had an ample
opportunity to respond," said Bonnie Ortiz, director of Affirmative
Action, who was involved in the Singh case from the beginning. "It
was a careful, thorough process, designed to protect the rights of everyone
documented in detail."
After a thorough internal investigation substantiated the charges against him, the University terminated Singh's employment on June 25, 1996. The termination was upheld by the Standing Joint Committee on Tenure in July 1997.
The majority of sexual harassment cases involve violations of civil law, but do not necessarily include criminal conduct, according to Janine C. Gismondi, attorney with McQuaide Blasko in State College.
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