‘Culture of intimidation’: Florida Southern rocked by sexual assault case, professor’s relationship with TA

8 On Your Side

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – A pair of sexually-charged investigations have fueled calls for change from Florida Southern students who claim the process to report these types of allegations is flawed and not encouraged by the college.

In September, in a dorm room at the private college of about 3,000, a student was allegedly sexually assaulted by another student. The student reported the incident to Lakeland Police in March and department spokesperson Robin Tillett said the investigation “is still open and active.”

FSC spokesperson Kelly Semrau said the case is “being appropriately investigated” under the standards set by Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

8 On Your Side spoke with the father of the victim but he chose not to comment on the record.

Early last year, there was also fallout from a sexual relationship between a professor and his teaching assistant who, ironically, were working on a research project about sexual harassment on college campuses, according to a document provided to 8 On Your Side.

Junior Miriam Pridgen said students were told by other faculty, “the administration knew about the relationship.”

“He was teaching human sexuality. The whole campus knew about this issue,” Pridgen said. “Nothing was done about it. There is a culture of intimidation on campus. No one wants us to report it.”

Under school policy at the time of the 2019 incident, “termination” was a possible punishment for the professor. At first, he was reprimanded but not fired according to Semrau, who said the relationship was reported as “consensual” by the student.

Semrau said the professor was terminated last year after the student, “changed her story.”

The student agreed to an interview with 8 On Your Side, but then stopped answering phone calls and emails.

Florida Southern President Anne Kerr has not responded to multiple requests for an comment including one specific question: Why didn’t Florida Southern terminate the professor when the incident was first reported?

The policy stated, “all amorous or sexual relationships” between faculty and students were “prohibited,” with potential punishment “up to and including termination.”

Semrau said the policy was strengthened after the 2019 relationship was exposed.

Earlier this year, Pridgen and other students formed a group called “I Stand with FSC Women,” with several saying in various social media forums they do not feel safe.

In a March chat room, many shared complaints ranging from “catcalling” on and off campus about their appearance to allegations of date rape.

“He drugged me at a party,” one person claimed.

Another post said, “I don’t know who to trust now.”

“This is trauma,” read another post.

Semrau said FSC “is one of the safest campuses in the nation.”

“We care deeply about our students and want them to always be safe and to feel safe on our campus,” Semrau said. “We do everything possible to ensure that women on campus are safe and feel safe.”

Clara Reynolds, the director of The Crisis Center for Tampa Bay, said outreach to college students is vital to help them feel safe about coming forward with their claims.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear it’s still happening,” Reynolds said. “Women, students are still afraid to come forward.”

Reynolds cited two stats that she said are important to discussion. Nearly half of the victims in Hillsborough County are college-aged, between 18 and 24 years old. And for every one person who reports an incident, two other cases go unreported.

“That’s ridiculous. So many young women come to us and say I was afraid to come forward,” Reynolds said. “I was afraid people weren’t going to believe me. I was afraid people were going to point fingers at me.”

Concerns about “alleged Title IX violations throughout the FSC campus community” prompted a virtual meeting in March, according to an article in the college newspaper, The Southern.

“This [Title IX Protocols] is all very clearly outlined on the college’s website,” Kerr said during the meeting. “Any student can access this, read it, study it, have it as a resource.”

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