Power relationships: alleged unwanted sexual advances at UNF raise ethical concerns

Patrick Lloyd

Video by Jack Drain.

After three students reported cases of alleged unwanted sexual advances by an RA this school year according to a UNFPD report, ethical issues have arisen regarding UNF Housing and Residence Life’s policies for sexual contact with residents.

All three alleged victims signed prosecution declination forms, choosing not to press charges against the RA. The RA also did not break any Housing rules, because according to Bob Boyle, Director of Housing and Residence Life, RAs are not forbidden from having sexual contact with residents, only “discouraged.”

Bob Boyle headshot

“I don’t believe we have anything in our employment agreement that speaks specifically to ‘you can’t have sex with your residents’, and we talk with our staff quite a bit about this, because they’re serving those students and trying to be of assistance and be a resource,” Boyle said. ”You can open yourself up to potential problems if you’re having relationships with folks who you’re serving as a resource to.”

“Relationship is a pretty broad term,” Boyle went on to say, “but sexual contact with another resident would be something we would discourage with another RA.”

This rule differs from the University’s policy on sexual conduct with faculty such as professors. UNF’s policies and regulations define sexual misconduct as “a broad term encompassing sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, non-consensual sexual contact and non-consensual sexual intercourse…Sexual misconduct can occur between strangers or acquaintances, including people involved in an intimate or sexual relationship. Sexual misconduct can be committed by men or by women, and it can occur between people of the same or different sex.”

The policies and regulations also state that “sexual misconduct violates university policy and federal rights law and may also be subject to criminal prosecution.” Anyone who violates the regulations “will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Since the alleged victims signed prosecution declinations, the case has now become a question of ethics. A nationally recognized ethics expert and two current RAs at UNF addressed the situation.

Spinnaker interviewed ethics expert Dr. John Foubert, Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Oklahoma State University, National President of One in Four and author of nine books including seven about how to end sexual violence on college campuses.

Foubert headshot

Regarding the ethics of being an RA, “We have to keep in mind that an RA is in a power relationship over people certainly on their floor, suite and in their building at large, and you don’t kind of cross that power relationship with sexual activity,” Foubert said. “It’s, at a bare minimum, grossly unethical.”

According to one of the alleged victims, the RA was not their RA at the time of the incidents, but Dr. Foubert doesn’t think it matters that the RA was not theirs at the time of the events.

“[The RA] may not have been their RA at the time, but [the RA] was an RA, and it was in [the RA]’s room,” said Foubert. “You could certainly define that as a workplace. I mean obviously [the RA] lives there too, but that’s a gross misuse of authority. If any of the three of these individuals were walking with an open container of alcohol down the hallway right in front of the perpetrator’s room, I presume that whether [the RA] is their RA or not, [the RA] would need to confront and document what happened, so [the RA] did this in an area where [the RA] does have power over individuals.”

Foubert went on to say he thinks UNF Housing should change its policy to say students with power relationships over other students should not be allowed to have intimate physical contact with those students.

“I wouldn’t say RAs shouldn’t have a sexual relationship with any student on campus,” he also said. “One does not need to go that far.”

Spinnaker reached out to two other RAs to hear their thoughts on the fact that Housing’s rule doesn’t forbid sexual contact with residents.

RA Jonah Hallahan thinks the wording is strong enough as is.

“They can’t outlaw it completely, because that’s their right as an individual to have intercourse with whoever they want, so they can’t say that you’re not allowed to do that, because that’d be discrimination,” said Hallahan. “However, they can strongly discourage it, because it does put a conflict of interest if you’re having a relationship with your resident, and then all of a sudden something comes around, and you have to be the discipline figure, it just can’t work out. I think it’s a pretty strong enough wording.”

RA Emily Sakkab has a different view.

“When it comes to dating residents, I think that that should be a clear ‘no’,” Sakkab said. “Because it’s a huge ethical dilemma when if you’re walking by a room and they’re smoking weed in their own bedroom, you can’t call out your own boyfriend or girlfriend. I really think that should be a hard ‘no’.”

UNF Public Relations confirmed the RA was terminated Jan. 17, 2015.

Spinnaker contacted the RA for their perspective, but the RA said Housing would not let them comment on the case.

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