“Tell someone.” That is the refrain from current and former Keene State College students, specialists from the Counseling Center and other campus sources regarding the ongoing case concerning Eugene “Gino” Vallante, who was fired by KSC on March 5, 2014 during an investigation regarding allegations of misconduct.
Dean of Students, Gail Zimmerman, said it’s important, “If a student is feeling uncomfortable in a situation where somebody who has some level of authority over them — whether it’s a faculty member or whether it’s a supervisor in a work situation or something like that — to tell somebody, they don’t have to keep it quiet.”
Will Wallace, a KSC alumnus, said, “Especially in situations like this, you can’t be worried about what people think about you. If you get a vibe from somebody that you feel is completely justified and that makes you uncomfortable like that, then you need to be more than willing to just kind of either tell somebody to, excuse my language, but [explicit] off — not worried about what people think about you…it’s because if they’re making you uncomfortable, it’s clearly for a reason.”
Vallante, who was employed by KSC from 2005 until his termination, held various positions on campus during those nine years. Students who worked in the Night Owl Cafe (NOC) said they developed a close relationship with Vallante in his capacity as program coordinator of the NOC. They voiced their sadness and confusion of hearing the sudden news that their boss, and friend, would no longer be around. Cameron Haggar, a KSC student who works in the NOC, said Vice President of Student Affairs Andy Robinson and Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Paul Striffolino had told NOC employees they could not contact Vallante when the college was investigating Vallante before he was fired.
Other students who shared their story with The Equinox said they felt uneasy around Vallante, as they claimed they endured his inappropriate verbal behavior — some said this went on for years. When asked why it took so long to talk about these uneasy feelings students had in relation to Vallante, some members of the KSC community explained that students “don’t want to be tied” to such a case, or simply did not know where to go if the issue got “out-of-hand.”
For these students to express these feelings to anyone, though, they must first know where exactly to turn.
AT A LOSS ABOUT WHERE TO GO
Wallace, who worked in the Spaulding Gymnasium before he graduated KSC, said Vallante made him “uncomfortable” after Vallante requested him on Facebook and began to ask him, “What are you doing tonight?” said though he personally never felt a need to go to any authorities about the issue, he would not have known where to go if he felt the situation did ever escalate.
Wallace questioned if Campus Safety or another department on school grounds was the proper location to bring this issue to. “Would I go to the Dean of Students about this, and who deals with these kinds of things? It’s not very clear to students where they can go with these problems,” he explained.
“There really is no defined place where you can bring this kind of issue to,” Wallace said, who graduated in December 2013.
Other students felt the same way about not knowing where to go. One former KSC student and men’s basketball player who requested his name be withheld explained he and multiple members from the team sat down together to write up a letter of complaint about Vallante.
“A few of us were just so shocked at the time and didn’t know what to do, so we stepped aside to write down everything that was on our minds and everything that was fresh in our memory,” the student explained, “and I guess that was really it.” The letter was never brought to any college officials, and the student said he did not know where to submit this letter.
Taylor James “TJ” Neville, a KSC senior who said he felt uneasy around Vallante, said he’d shared his feelings of uneasiness with his roommate at the time. But, when asked what resources at the college he would have gone to about the situation, he said, “I don’t think there’s any [resources] — there’s nothing I can think of as a real resource to go to.” Neville stated if he had written up a formal complaint, he would not know where to bring it on campus. “[I] never brought it up to anybody who could’ve done anything about it,” Neville said, because he said he never let his conversations with Vallante go “over-the-top.”
Wallace explained that he himself, “never brought it up to anybody who could’ve done anything about it,” as he didn’t let his conversations with Vallante get “past that point.”
Linda Baker, psychology professor at KSC, pointed out that she could not comment on the ongoing Vallante case specifically, but generally speaking about abuse literature, she said verbal harassment is, “unwanted and crosses a line that makes people uncomfortable.”
SEXUAL MISCONDUCT POLICY
The current Student Handbook, as listed on the KSC website, reads that, “Sexual harassment may take the form of unwelcome sexual advances…jokes…which serves to interfere with a person’s work or academic life.”
The same web page also reads that stalking is defined, quote, “repeated unwanted attention that would create fear in a reasonable person where the intent is to force him/herself into the life/consciousness of the victim through harassing, threatening or frightening behavior(s). Behaviors may include: phone calls; electronic communication such as texting, emails, social networking, etc.; letters and notes; surveillance; entering home/apartment; assault.”
In an email response to questions about specific sexual misconduct policies during Vallante’s time of employment, Media Relations Manager at KSC, Kelly Ricaurte, replied, “The policy was last updated this past summer (2013) with the previous update being in 2005. The process was streamlined slightly and different roles were listed for intake; we added gender identity and expression as a protected group. But otherwise, the same obligation to report was in force in 2005 as currently required of any employee of the institution.”
Ricaurte also said the policy is identical for KSC students, faculty and staff. When asked what obligations faculty and/or staff have in reporting sexual harassment, Ricaurte only listed a link to a page titled, “Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment Approved June 25, 2013.”
When asked where students can find the handbook, Ricaurte said, “The handbook is available online.”
RESOURCES AT KSC
Director of the Counseling Center at KSC Brian Quigley pointed out that students can turn to the center for help.
“Whether it’s on this issue or any other issue, we are here to support students and if a student’s being affected in any way, shape or form by this circumstance or any other circumstance, that’s what we do on this campus — is provide support, we help those students, we figure out what’s needed, what they might want to do, how to move forward, how to cope, depending on what’s going on with them,” he said.
He also explained that a student’s academic record is not connected to their records as a “patient” of the center in electronic or physical manners.
“Sometimes knowing that there’s a sense of neutrality at the Counseling Center at least, might be helpful to students who want to come in and share their thoughts and feelings around this circumstance or any other circumstance,” Quigley said.
After the investigation became public, Quigley reached out to NOC employees to let them know counselors were available should students need someone to talk to. Two of these students, Cam Haggar and Brittney Rando said they developed close relationships with Vallante and looked at him as a mentor. They said they have a support system composed of the Counseling Center staff as well as faculty members who’ve asked them how they are handling the situation.
Haggar further explained the transition has been tough, but Robinson, Striffolino and Mark Gempler (associate director of the student center) have been supportive.
Zimmerman pointed out in the Counseling Center, “These [Counseling Center offices] are offices that are not judgmental,” and are there for students to help manage issues, understand issues and what to do about issues.
Zimmerman stated she’s been a dean for over 25 years, and, “It won’t embarrass me [Zimmerman] and you should not feel embarrassed by it [an issue].” She pointed out that stress can affect a person mentally and physically and recommended students visit the Counseling Center and Health and Wellness Center because professionals in both these facilities can provide students the aid they need.
Meanwhile, the investigation continues regarding Vallante’s alleged behaviors during the nine years he worked at KSC.
According to a statement on the KSC website filed under “news,” the McLane Law Firm is responsible for investigating the, “allegations of employee misconduct.” Also, the same statement reported former N.H. Attorney General Michael Delaney will lead the investigation. KSC President Anne Huot stated, “Keene State’s top priority is providing a safe, secure environment for our students, faculty and staff. It’s critical that we have a timely and thorough external investigation so that we can address any shortcomings. Working with Mr. Delaney and his colleagues ensures that we have taken the necessary steps to move forward with confidence in our policies for reporting misconduct.”
She continued, “That said, we also rely on our campus community to take an active role in this process. For this reason, we have been meeting with faculty, staff and students to raise awareness and understanding of how and when to take action for the wellbeing of others in our community.”
Delaney spoke about what the firm plans to do as well. His statement found on the same page reads, “We will expeditiously review all aspects of the College’s handling of this matter.” Delaney continued, “Upon completion of this investigation, we will provide a comprehensive summary of our findings that will offer guidance for any further actions that may need to be taken.”
WHY THE SILENCE?
Homer Stavely, a KSC psychology professor, also explained he could not comment on the Vallante case specifically, but said, “When somebody’s been victimized, they sometimes feel some combination of shame and guilt…and may be reluctant to tell somebody else about it because that sort of exposes them to public knowledge that they feel like they did something wrong, they might have invited—even if unintentionally—invited this attention.”
Baker similarly stated, “They [victims in general] sometimes feel like people will hold them responsible for what happened and they can feel a lot of shame,” she said. Baker further said an issue with society as a whole is that “victims can feel blamed.”
She noted in general terms of verbal harassment she, “wouldn’t be surprised if students or anyone might just think, ‘Oh, it’s just words, what am I worried about?’ You know, ‘Why am I making such a big deal out of this?’”
KSC alumnus Wallace said, “I think it [silence from students] has to do with people being worried about being linked to something like this, the stigma and all the attention that comes with it.”
Wallace later commented that these situations where students feel uncomfortable are “a big deal.” He continued, “People are going to know that it was you who are making a big deal out of this, and accusing somebody of this…there’s a stigma that comes with that, that maybe some people are just like, ‘Oh maybe if I just ignore it or brush it off it’ll just go away and I won’t have to deal with all the attention — maybe the negative attention that comes with turning it into something.’”
“ENTITLED TO THEIR FEELINGS”
NOC employees Rando and Haggar said they’ve felt a mixture of confusion, anger and sadness since Vallante’s firing. Rando explained, “One day, we just walked in here and everything was taken off the walls, all of his personal stuff was taken out of here, and it was just like…what’s going on?”
Haggar shared he’s still having a hard time dealing with Vallante being gone, and it’s difficult when, “people come up to me [Haggar] and say, ‘You’re in charge of that [NOC] now that that creep’s gone?’”
Professor Baker said, “Those students [NOC employees] need to be validated for their feelings, it’s a horrible experience to have to go through.”
Baker later said that generally speaking, “None of us like to think that people that we’ve been connected with have done really harmful things, it’s upsetting….as a society, we’re in denial about sexual abuse, about sexual exploitation and how often it happens because it makes us so unhappy.”
Stavely agreed. “Everyone is entitled to their feelings,” and in terms of students opening up to talk to KSC resources, he said, “It’s hard for the college to make its people [administration, faculty] seem like approachable pals. I think the college tries hard. My sense of Keene State since I’ve worked here is that it takes its students seriously, and made a serious effort to be supportive and helpful and friendly.”
Each individual The Equinox interviewed for this story said the key to moving forward and for students to make their feelings or issues known is to talk about them. In regards to Vallante, Neville said, “Nothing bad can come from this [telling someone] if you were a student talking about what Gino did. I would encourage people to do it.”
For students who are feeling left in the dark as far as what is going on, Baker said, “There are probably a lot of laws and policies that are being dealt with here that are making it hard for people to tell students what they want to know or to have warned students before he was fired.”
Quigley said, if any students feel intimidated by the Counseling Center or counselors, he hopes to “dispel” that. “Whether it’s intimidation or anxiety or whether it’s other concerns, in my mind, if there’s ever something that has occurred to an individual that seems concerning, worrisome — that information undeniably needs to be shared when that person’s able to share that, because it obviously would be very important information, whether it’s this incident or any other incident.”
He continued, “Part of it sometimes, is to share things that are difficult. It sometimes is better for the group [and] the community” if the individual shares difficult information.
Stavely expressed his empathy for everyone affected or involved in the Vallante matter. He said, “I’m sorry for all concerned that all this happened. It’s not fun for anybody — on the college’s side, on Mr. Vallante’s side, on the students’ side — so I hope that everybody grows from it as best they can.”
Zimmerman said the college is aware students may feel anxious about talking to resource officers at KSC and pointed out the college is always thinking of ways to overcome that. She said, “It takes a village, we all work together and we’re here to support each other. Human beings are social animals, we work in social groups, and there’s a reason why we do that — because we’re here to support each other.”
Brittany Ballantyne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org