9 Investigates

9 Investigates: UCF students sexually harassed

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — A Title IX investigation revealed that a University of Central Florida professor sexually harassed a female student whose scholarship he oversaw. Records show that he was allowed to keep his job despite that investigation.

That woman, who has since graduated, has shared her story with 9 Investigates to raise awareness about what she calls a flawed system.

9 Investigates' Karla Ray learned that when an investigation proves misconduct has taken place, professors and staff members aren't automatically fired after a first offense.

Photos that were provided to Title IX investigators and later to 9 Investigates show UCF Theatre professor John Heil with a female student hanging on his back and him holding onto that student's bare legs. Another photo, which doesn't show Heil's face, shows his hands wrapped around a female student, who is sitting in his lap.

"I always thought that was inappropriate, and I never wanted to be a part of that," said Jenny Totcky, who graduated in December.

In 2015, after months of what she considered advances while working at UCF's Theatre Scene Shop, Totcky said she submitted photos of other students to Title IX as part of a sexual harassment complaint against Heil.

Heil was Totcky’s supervisor’s supervisor and he oversaw a scholarship she received.

Totcky told Title IX and 9 Investigates that Heil invited her to stay with him at a hotel during an out-of-town theater conference and made other comments and invitations that made her feel uncomfortable.

"He told me it would be OK, because it was just him in the room," Totcky said. "Shortly after that, he told me he had trouble communicating with me, because it was hard to look at me -- because I was so pretty."

"Those were his words?" Ray said.

"Yes, those were his words," Totcky said.

UCF Title IX investigators interviewed Heil 10 months after Totcky filed a complaint, according to records.

During that interview, Heil admitted the hotel invitation and comments about Totcky's appearance, records show.

When confronted with the photos that Totcky submitted, Heil also admitted that his students would give him back rubs, tickle him and sit on his lap, documents show.

The investigation found Heil violated Title IX sexual harassment policies and the UCF Employee Code of Conduct, records said. Documents show Heil underwent sexual harassment training, was required to receive some supervision around students and a written reprimand.

"I was taught growing up that harassment was not tolerated, especially in a school setting," Totcky said. "I thought it would be taken care of differently."

Although Florida’s state universities have the option to fire employees found to have sexually harassed students, 9 Investigates learned that none of the schools have policies that require them to do so after a first offense.

UCF has no written policy dictating discipline schedules, and each case is handled on its merit and circumstances.

The University of South Florida's policy dictates that an employee will be dismissed upon the second occurrence of discrimination or harassment of a fellow employee or a student. Human resources managers also have the option to fire an employee after a first offense.

Florida State University faculty and staff members may commit up to three offenses before a dismissal is required by policy. However, a termination is possible upon a first or second occurrence depending on the circumstances.

The University of Florida's policy states that anyone found to have violated the school's sexual harassment policy can face discipline "up to and including dismissal."

According to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University's policies, disciplinary action may include a written reprimand, probation, suspension, expulsion or termination. The nature of counseling or disciplinary action is guided by the seriousness of an offense.

The University of Miami doesn't post its policies online, and 9 Investigates’ request for a copy of its disciplinary policy is still being processed.

Rollins College's discipline of faculty and staff may include termination based on the severity of a behavior.

From 2015 through 2017, UCF completed 31 Title IX sexual harassment investigations in which employees were the respondent.

Sixteen of the cases were dismissed due to lack of evidence or cooperation from the reporting student.

Thirteen of the cases didn't result in formal discipline, but the faculty or staff members received a verbal reprimand, were reassigned or were given no contact orders at the request of the students who complained.

Eight other Title IX allegations against faculty or staff remain under investigation.

Two of the cases had a formal finding that a violation of Title IX occurred, records show.

One case involved an adjunct faculty member who wasn't rehired by UCF after an investigation determined that the faculty member harassed a female student and retaliated by changing her grade. The other case involved Heil.

Only FSU, USF and Rollins College provided 9 Investigates with similar details.

At FSU, there were 17 sexual harassment complaints made by students against faculty or staff during that time frame, but officials wouldn't disclose the investigations’ results or specify whether the employees kept their jobs.

There were nine such complaints at USF during the same time, but only one investigation determined that harassment occurred, records show. That employee worked in an adjunct position and is no longer employed by the university, officials said.

There were seven such complaints at Rollins College with three faculty or staff members determined to be responsible during subsequent investigations. School officials wouldn't say if those who were investigated are still employed by the college.

"It should be wiped out," Totcky said. "That's not acceptable."

UCF officials declined several requests for on-camera interviews, but in an emailed statement, they told 9 Investigates that the university has expanded its Title IX office and recently added investigators to handle cases.

Earlier this year, UCF launched "Let’s Be Clear," a campuswide program to encourage students and employees to report misconduct. It included a note from president John Hitt to faculty, staff members and students, outlining expectations for on-campus behavior and available resources for victims of sexual and domestic violence.

University officials also stuck stickers bearing the phrase "Let's Be Clear" in each campus restroom to encourage the reporting of sexual misconduct.

The university also offers a training program called Green Dot, an initiative that encourages bystanders to intervene in situations involving power-based personal violence.

"UCF takes sexual misconduct very seriously, and we are committed to keeping our students safe," a university spokesman said in an emailed statement. "We expect our faculty, staff and students to treat one another with respect and professionalism at all times."

9 Investigates reached out to Heil for comment but hasn't heard back.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.