About halfway through the spring legislative session, rumors about a Capitol intern from Missouri Southern State University engaging in a relationship with a state lawmaker made their way to the school’s Joplin campus.
Although details were hard to come by, the chairman of the school’s governing board said he was told worries grew strong enough that the university cut the internship short for the college freshman and three other students in the program.
Still, the university has not opened a case under a federal law intended to protect college students from harassment.
Missouri Southern board of governors chairman James Fleischaker defended the university, saying facts surfaced slowly and sometimes in muddled fashion. He said Missouri Southern president Alan Marble acted appropriately by pulling the interns from the Capitol and back to Joplin.
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“I think (Marble) said, ‘I’m not going to wait to find out what the full story is,’” Fleischaker said. “On his direction, he had (the interns) brought home. I know the university directed that all be brought home.”
School administrators knew something was wrong, Fleischaker said, but the details didn’t come into focus until May 13, when “we read them in The Star.”
That day, it was revealed that House Speaker John Diehl had been exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with Katie Graham, a 19-year-old Missouri Southern freshman who was interning in the House.
Since that news broke, questions have swirled about whether the university did everything required by federal law.
Universities around the nation are facing heightened scrutiny over how they handle enforcement of federal Title IX laws, which protect students in federally funded education programs from harassment and discrimination based on gender.
At Missouri Southern, school spokeswoman Cassie Mathes issued a written statement Friday.
“The university is investigating issues surrounding text messages revealed to MSSU for the first time in the Kansas City Star report,” the statement said. “MSSU previously addressed the decision to reassign interns in April and cannot further comment on student-related issues, potential or specific investigations.”
Peter Lake, professor of law and Title IX coordinator at Stetson University in Florida, said the situation in Missouri demonstrates just how complicated such issues can become.
Federal law, Lake said, is designed to deal with unwelcome behavior, such as sexual assault or harassment. In situations like Missouri’s where the relationship appears to be consensual, things become unclear.
“Something that is welcome would not necessarily be a Title IX issue on its face,” he said.
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Title IX investigations don’t have to result in punishment or disciplinary action, Lake said. That’s especially true when one of the people involved doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the school, such as Diehl.
In such cases, he said, investigations can lead to policy changes to better protect students or provide assistance to victims.
Missouri Southern’s general counsel has looked into the matter, Fleischaker said, and has talked with each of the interns. Graham initially denied any relationship took place, he said, and has since hired an attorney. Graham’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Fleischaker said he was unsure if the school was automatically required to launch a Title IX investigation based on what it learned about the intern and Diehl.
“If the student does not want to pursue the investigation, we can’t force them to,” he said. “The university has the obligation to look into this, but how far is the university (supposed) to pursue it? It is very murky.”
But Title IX experts said that even if it is determined the relationship was consensual, an investigation of some sort must still take place.
“It happens all the time that people are involved in something that potentially is Title IX related and they don’t want to proceed,” Lake said. “If there are Title IX issues, there are circumstances when a school should proceed even if the student says they don’t want to go forward.”
Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor at the New England School of Law and an attorney specializing in cases involving sexual violence, said the difference in power and authority between the speaker of the House and an intern should throw the idea that it was consensual out the window.
“Because (Diehl) was in a position of authority over this intern, the school should go out of its way to investigate this fully,” Murphy said. “They need to be clear that this is unacceptable and need to send that message.”
Murphy said she is not trying to absolve the woman involved from any responsibility, but “when you’re that young and in that position, you are easily exploitable. And you may not even know you are being exploited.”
Meanwhile, the University of Central Missouri and the Missouri Senate are conducting a Title IX investigation into the departure of a pair of interns who worked in the office of Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat. The focus of that investigation is unclear because neither the university nor Senate administrators would comment publicly.
Adam Crumbliss, chief clerk of the Missouri House, said he could neither confirm nor deny any investigation has taken place into Diehl’s relationship with an intern.
But as one of his first acts as the newly elected speaker of the Missouri House, Rep. Todd Richardson has appointed Rep. Kevin Engler to review House intern policies.
“Sexual activity is inappropriate for any business setting, any professional setting, and we just need to make sure we put up some safeguards,” Engler, a Farmington Republican, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We can’t stop stupidity, but we can sure put some codes of conduct in there.”
A handbook given out to House interns and the chamber’s sexual harassment policy have no provisions dealing with fraternization. Additionally, the House has no authority over qualifications for internships or placement of interns in legislative offices. Those decisions are left up to individual universities.
Fleischaker said the university’s board of governors will look at possible policy changes to prevent something like this from happening again. Mathes confirmed the school is “looking for ways to improve” its internship program.
Fleischaker said, “We don’t want to get rid of the program because of one incident.”