Education

‘It was a shock.’ Student says she went to her counselor for help and he kissed her.

Cosumnes River College student Iris Perez met with school crisis counselor Hoyt Fong once a week for a year to talk through difficulties in her life before he unexpectedly kissed her on the lips.

“It was a shock,” Perez said in an interview. “I didn’t know how to react. I was frozen. I tried to brush it off, just to get out as fast as I could. ... When I was getting into my car it all hit me at once and then that’s when I started crying. It was unbelievable.”

Shortly after the incident, Perez filed a complaint with the Los Rios Community College District.

The 19-year-old psychology student stood before the district board during the public comment period on March 14 to tell her story and to ask trustees to strengthen district policies to protect students from sexual harassment and abuse.

Perez told The Bee she felt betrayed when the counselor kissed her after a hug that had become a tradition after each counseling session. According to an investigative report prepared by the district, Fong apologized for the kiss and hugged her again. Perez jerked away.

“I was putting a lot of a trust into this person and saying a lot of personal things that were happening in my life,” she said. “… It made me question how trusting I should be with people.”

Perez said she would like to see the district take sexual assault cases more seriously, investigate them more thoroughly and follow through with termination or suspensions in substantiated cases. She also would like to see trained student advocates on campus, so students have someone to help them through the complaint process.

Chancellor Brian King and each college president earlier this month signed a letter announcing they would convene a special cabinet meeting in the coming weeks to draft changes to the Los Rios sexual harassment policies. The changes will reinforce the existing practice of prohibiting the rehiring of any employee who resigns or retires in the midst of an ongoing investigation into serious misconduct, unless that employee is exonerated. It also would set clear boundaries regarding personal relationships between students and staff.

In February the district announced it would expand mandatory sexual harassment prevention training for employees and offer training for students. The district also has added more human resources employees to investigate allegations.

The community college district and WEAVE, short for Women Escaping a Violent Environment, teamed up a few years ago to start a program to bring expert advocates to campuses every week to support victims of sexual assault and abuse, according to district officials.

Los Rios spokesman Gabe Ross said the changes were prompted by the larger #Me Too movement and national discussions on this topic, not specifically by Perez' complaint.

Fong could not be reached for comment for this story. He worked for the district for more than 40 years, becoming a counselor in 1989. He was chair of the counseling and human services department from 2015-17, according to the district website. He resigned on Jan. 11 after refusing to participate in the investigation, according to the investigative report.

Perez said school officials asked her to withdraw her complaint after Fong resigned.

The community college district has been sweeping sexual harassment cases under the carpet for years, often retaining offending teachers or moving them from campus to campus, said Julie Oliver, CRC Academic Senate past president, in a letter sent to faculty the day after the board meeting.

“Sexual predators cannot be allowed to continue to have access to our students nor our employees once claims have been made, and especially if claims are substantiated,” she wrote. “The district must put safety and well-being of humans first before any legal, fiscal, and/or public relations concerns.

Oliver and English professor David Weinshilboum, who has been advocating for Perez, spoke on her behalf at the board of trustees meeting.

Sexual harassment and assault aren't specific to CRC and had been taking place at most institutions for decades, Oliver said Friday. "The #Times Up and #Me too movement has shined a light on that. Los Rios is being called out."

Perez is the latest area student to step forward to protest the way a school district handles sexual harassment and sexual assault cases. Students at McClatchy High School walked out of classes earlier this month in protest after The Sacramento Bee reported on a former student who alleged she was gang raped by classmates in 2016 and that her claims were improperly handled by school staff.

Roseville parents expressed outrage in January after a Woodcreek High School teacher was transferred to another school after a 14-year-old complained that he had touched her inappropriately. He was put on administrative leave three days after a story ran in The Bee.

Ross said the district investigates all claims thoroughly whenever there is evidence of misconduct. ‘“We take these matters very seriously,” he said. “We have a responsibility to create a safe, respectful and equitable environment on campus for our students, faculty and staff. It’s a responsibility that we do not lightly.”

He could not say whether there have been additional complaints against Fong, saying that personnel records are confidential.

Ross said he did not know whether Perez had been asked to withdraw her complaint, but said it is not unusual to offer complainants that option to avoid having them relive a traumatic incident. “In general we never discourage victims from pursuing an investigation,” Ross said.

He said the withdrawal of a complaint does not preclude a complainant from suing the district and that generally all investigations are completed once they are started.

Weinshilboum advised Perez not to withdraw the complaint and to continue the investigation. On Jan. 18 Perez receive a letter from Susan Slager, director of Human Resources, saying her claim was substantiated based on investigators' interviews with her and the lack of a rebuttal from Fong.

The report did not say whether the finding would affect Fong's retirement or his ability to be rehired on a district campus, so Perez filed a report with campus police. The investigation could take up to a year, she said.

Cosumnes River College President Edward Bush responded to the issue last week by commending Perez for her bravery in an open letter. He encouraged victims of sexual harassment and assault to share their stories.

“We remain committed to keeping every student and employee in the Los Rios community safe and empowering each and every individual to report inappropriate or offensive behavior immediately without fear of retribution,” he said.

He did not use Fong's name, but said that the employee in question is ineligible to be rehired in the district.

Oliver and Weinshilboum both said they are optimistic about the changes proposed by the community college district. "I don’t’ know how far they are going to go, but I’m hopeful there will be significant changes," Weinshilboum said.

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