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University of Missouri lawsuit says punishment for sexual harassment was racially biased

In depositions involving the case of a grad student accused of harassing an undergrad, University of Missouri officials said that asking out someone physically smaller could violate the university’s sexual harassment rules. (The University of Missouri)
In depositions involving the case of a grad student accused of harassing an undergrad, University of Missouri officials said that asking out someone physically smaller could violate the university’s sexual harassment rules. (The University of Missouri) University of Missouri

In recent court depositions, University of Missouri officials said that asking out someone who is physically smaller could potentially run afoul of the university’s sexual harassment policies, a court filing revealed this week.

The statements were made during an ongoing case involving Jeremy Rowles, a former Mizzou doctoral student who was suspended after the university decided that he had harassed an undergrad who taught a fitness class on campus.

In a statement to Yahoo and ABC30, university officials said Friday that the media’s focus on that single aspect of the case “is out of context and incomplete, creating an inaccurate picture of the situation. These reports left out important facts that can be found in court records regarding the suspended student’s repeated conduct both in person and on social media. Multiple complaints and concerns were expressed by at least four female students, and they provide important contextual information about this situation. The University of Missouri stands by its decision — a decision that was made to protect the welfare of our students.”

Rowles, who is black, has sued the school, alleging it violated his civil rights because “he was given a harsher punishment than white men accused of similar violations,” according to KMIZ in Columbia, which reports the university will not talk about the pending case.

Depositions given by Mizzou officials, cited in Rowles’ request for a partial summary judgment filed on Monday, were posted online here.

Rowles met Annalise Breaux at Kaldi’s Coffee in Columbia, where she worked, in the fall of 2015. She is white.

They met again in the spring of 2016 when she began teaching dance fitness classes at the university’s Student Recreation Center and Rowles signed up, “after which their interactions became more personal, and the two spoke to one another more often,” the document says.

“Breaux thought Rowles was friendly, and she did not interpret his behavior or comments as flirtatious because she thought he was gay.”

He asked her out on a date in April 2016, making her feel “uncomfortable,” she later told university officials.

“Over the next week, Rowles sent Breaux several Facebook messages, which became more frequent and increasingly romantic in nature,” says the court filing.

She replied: “Jeremy, I really appreciate your feedback about my class and choreography, but these messages are getting excessive. I think our friendship needs to remain in the professional setting. Many of the things you say, like that Instagram comment for example, is over the top and I wouldn’t be comfortable hanging out outside of my places of work.”

Rowles apologized “and acknowledged that he had misread their prior interactions,” the court filing says.

He kept going to her classes during the fall 2016 semester. On Oct. 7 of that year “Rowles tried to talk with Breaux after class but she dashed off to the bathroom to avoid him.

On Oct. 14, he handed her a three-page letter after class, according to the court document, that “contained apologies and a confession of ‘love.’

“Breaux told Rowles she was taking the letter to her supervisor and that larger measures would be taken because of it,” the document says.

On Oct. 21, Breaux submitted a formal complaint. “Throughout the investigation, Breaux never alleged that Rowles touched her inappropriately or threatened her with violence,” says the judgment request.

“She never said that she was afraid of Rowles or that he made her feel intimidated. Breaux told (investigators) that ‘(Rowles) has an inability to read social cues... ”

“He didn’t understand that things were over, and that we couldn’t be friends,” Breaux said, according to the document.

In one exchange between Rowles’s lawyer and Cathy Scroggs, then vice chancellor for student affairs, Scroggs suggested that asking someone out on a date is a “sexual advance” subject to the University of Missouri’s code of conduct for students.

Lawyer: “So, let me ask you what unwanted sexual advance means. Is that — is a request for a date an unwanted sexual advance, if it’s unwanted. I mean, if someone asks you out that you don’t want to go out with, is that an unwanted sexual advance?

Scroggs: “Probably not the first time, no.”

Lawyer: “But the second time it would be?”

Scroggs: “If I keep turning him down and he keeps asking, I would consider that unwanted.”

The court filing states that “Scroggs also believes that asking someone out on a date who is physically smaller than oneself qualifies as a ‘power or authority’ as defined by the university’s conduct code.”

Lawyer: “The allegations against Jeremy Rowles, do you believe that they’ve satisfied subsection 1 of sexual harassment?”

Scroggs: “I think he was perceived as having power over her.”

Lawyer: “And what was the nature of his power over her? Was it just his size?”

Scroggs: “His physical size.”

The court filing also says that Andy Hayes, the university’s assistant vice chancellor for Civil Rights & Title IX, agreed with the testimony from Scroggs “that a man’s physical size is sufficient to bring him within the ambit of that rule.”

The university decided that Rowles had violated its sexual harassment policy “by engaging in unwelcome verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature towards (Breaux)“ and had “created a hostile environment by being sufficiently pervasive that it interfered with her ability to do her job at TigerX.”

Mizzou suspended Rowles from all four of its campuses for four years, and permanently banned him from university’s residence halls and the Rec Center.

The suspension was later reduced to two years after Rowles argued that he hadn’t stalked Breaux and that “the conduct at issue here amounts to misunderstanding of social cues and unrequited romantic interest. Giving an instructor a high five in an exercise class does not constitute sexual contact.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated after publication to include a statement from the University of Missouri about media coverage of this case.