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“A problem:” Student journalists uncover years of assault, harassment allegations at UWM

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE -- Dozens of professors and staff members at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have been accused of sexual assault or harassment, according to a new report covering the past 4 years. The information was uncovered by UWM student journalists, who started asking questions as part of a class assignment. They say answers provided by the university have only led to more questions.

Talis Shelbourne said she credits movies for sparking her passion in journalism.

"My favorite are 'Spotlight' and Veronica Guerin," she said.

Talis Shelbourne

Shelbourne is part of the group of three UWM journalism students that uncovered dozens of professors and employees have been accused of harassment and sexual assault on campus over the past 4 years.

"We feel that students should be able to know who their professors are," Shelbourne said.

The students obtained a list showing 40 reports against 37 professors or staff members. The university determined 11 were violations.

Students said much of the information as to how the investigations were handled remains hidden.

"We want to know 'do you guys have a problem?' Why has the rate of exoneration been escalating the last few years? What kind of investigation is going on?" Shelbourne said.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Students pointed out the list doesn't offer names or punishments. Open records requests seeking that information, and other questions, like whether the university has ever paid settlements related to the violations have, so far, gone unanswered.

"I think there's certainly a problem as far as the transparency issue goes," Shelbourne said.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

In a lengthy statement to FOX6 News, a UWM spokeswoman said, in part, the university "takes the issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment very seriously." UWM officials pointed out the campus has 8,000 employees and student workers and 90 percent of their workers have completed sexual harassment training over the past 6 months. The spokeswoman said "in the 11 cases where a violation did occur, appropriate discipline was taken. Most of the employees were terminated or had already left the university.'

Below is the complete statement from UWM:

"UWM takes the issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment very seriously. In the past six months, more than 90 percent of our employees have completed training to raise awareness about sexual harassment. We are committed to maintaining a safe and supportive environment for our students and employees, and we have zero tolerance for behavior that runs counter to our values and puts our community at risk.

That said, please keep in mind that we have nearly 8,000 employees and student workers on campus. The cases that you and the student journalists asked about are not reflective of the good work and good behavior of the vast majority of our employees.

I can confirm that there have been 40 complaints involving 37 instructors or supervisors in the past 5 years. The complaints were made to our Office of Equity and Diversity Services, which provided the chart posted with the story. In most of the cases, an investigation found no violation had occurred. In the 11 cases where a violation did occur, appropriate discipline was taken. Most of the employees were terminated or had already left the university.

In regard to the open records requests – the university is complying with open records requests. Our public records custodian provided the chart referenced above, as well as other information. However, we receive many open records requests, and it often takes time to fill them. And, in this case, the students modified their records requests multiple times and requested some materials that require notice to the individuals involved before the materials can be released. The students will receive all the information they have requested and are legally entitled to.

And then your last question – we believe our system is working. Each fall, our chancellor sends a message to the campus community, restating our core values, letting people know where to find our annual security report and letting people know where they can make complaints. We want students and employees to make complaints when they feel that behavior has been inappropriate because then we can do something about it. In cases where a violation is found, the matter is referred to our disciplinary process. And, even when cases aren’t referred to the disciplinary process, it’s an opportunity for training or education to help employees understand the impact of their behavior. The data show that most of the complaints don’t involve behavior that meets the legal definition of harassment, but we would rather have more complaints than fewer because we want to know what is happening on our campus. That information lets us take action, and we are committed to creating and maintain an environment in which everyone feels comfortable and safe."

Students said they'd like to see the paperwork themselves.

"We want to finish the story," Shelbourne said.

UWM officials said "the students will receive all the information they've requested and are legally entitled to."