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In a Counselor's Care

In a Counselor's Care
October 29, 2009

Confronted with charges that he had romantic involvements with graduate students or sent them explicit text messages while they were enrolled in his classes, a University of Florida department head has resigned, university officials confirmed.

Michael T. Garrett, a tenured professor of counselor education, resigned this month amid an internal investigation of the charges, according to Janine Sikes, a university spokeswoman.

“We regret the personal distress that has come from this situation, and as soon as the university learned of allegations of misconduct Michael Garrett was placed on administrative leave and an internal investigation was begun,” she says. “We took immediate action.”

Photo: Michael T. Garrett Curriculum Vita

Michael T. Garrett, a University of Florida professor of counselor education and department head, resigned amid an investigation into his relationships with students.

The investigation, however, was never concluded. Garrett resigned October 2, effectively ending the inquiry, Sikes said. Absent the conclusion of the investigation, the university has made no determination of whether the allegations made against Garrett were founded or violated university policies, she said. That said, “In cases where there are serious allegations and the person resigns before the completion of an investigation, we generally would not rehire him or her,” Sikes says.

Garrett did not respond to multiple cell phone calls and e-mail inquiries from Inside Higher Ed Tuesday and Wednesday.

The university’s inquiry into Garrett began after two students who said they had been involved with him reported their concerns, according to students familiar with the case. The nature of the investigation into Garrett was not widely known until Monday, when the College of Education held a meeting attended by about 80 people to discuss Garrett’s resignation. University officials told the group he had been investigated for sexual harassment, but no further details were imparted, according to several people who attended the meeting. After college officials made brief comments, the statements of two students were read to the group.

“I have sadly come to learn in the past couple of months that there are several other students who simultaneously shared that false hope and trust in Michael, believing as I did that they were involved in an exclusive, intimate, committed relationship,” one statement read. “Those students, consequently, are also experiencing intense pain right now.”

Garrett was director of the School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in the College of Education, and he has taught a number of courses in the college since his appointment in 2006. According to two of his former female students, Garrett gained their trust through his position of authority, sent them a series of increasingly personal e-mails and text messages -- some of them, to one student, explicit -- and ultimately had consensual sex with them.

In one case, a student says she had regular sex with Garrett while she was enrolled in his class. In another case, a student says she engaged in explicit texting with Garrett -- including mutually exchanged nude photographs -- over the course of several semesters when she was his student. The student said the relationship was consummated at Garrett’s home when she was not his student, but he still chaired the department in which she majored. A third student said she had intimate conversations with Garrett about her personal life, and -- while not enrolled in his class -- ultimately rebuffed a physical advance from him when she visited his house.

All three students spoke to Inside Higher Ed on condition of anonymity, citing the highly personal nature of the allegations. While the women said the relationships were consensual, they came to believe Garrett had manipulated them upon learning he had been involved with multiple students simultaneously.

The university's own policies indicate that even “consensual” relationships between students and professors can be problematic because of the clear power differential between the two parties.

“A conflict of interest is created when an individual evaluates, supervises, or has decision making power affecting a student with whom he or she has a romantic or sexual relationship,” Florida’s policy states. “Such relationships, even when consensual, may be exploitative.”

Garrett is 39, and all three of the students who spoke with Inside Higher Ed for this article are in their early to mid twenties. None of the students interviewed said they thought they received favoritism from Garrett, but all said they felt they were on shaky ethical ground -- and that he thought so, too.

“He said he would never do this with anyone else, that he would only risk his career for me and that he would never risk it for another student,” says one of Garrett’s former students, who says she had a sexual relationship with him while enrolled in his class. “He knew -- we both were aware -- of the ethics behind it. Based on love we would overlook that, and he made it very clear that it was only me and that it would never be anybody else.”

An Intimate Class

Garrett, whose résumé indicates he was licensed as a school counselor in North Carolina, has written numerous books and articles about spiritual healing and American Indian religious practices. He frequently includes a Cherokee middle name, Tlanusta, when publishing. In his courses, Garrett often expects students to share their own intimate personal histories with the class, and the three students interviewed for this article said they felt he used those experiences to establish trust and intimacy with him.

One of the students, named “Jane” for the purposes of this article, says her interactions with Garrett began in 2008 when she was taking a class called Developmental Counseling Over the Lifespan. Garrett started the class by asking students to write a paper about a “critical incident” that had changed their lives. Jane says she wrote about a difficult relationship, and she says Garrett used those details as an opening to talk to her about her personal life outside of class.

“His classes were intimate,” she said. “We exposed really personal stuff, and he would continue to talk to us about personal stuff. That’s what he initiated contact with.”

As a graduate student, Jane says, she asked all of her professors to recommend a book that had “changed their lives.” Most responded with books about counseling. Jane says Garrett, however, suggested the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean writer whose lyricism is often laced with erotic or sensual imagery.

As the relationship progressed, Jane says she was receiving as many as 100 text messages each day from Garrett. Over time the texts grew more explicit, but by Jane’s own admission Garrett was initially resistant when she pressed for a physical relationship. It wasn’t until after he was no longer teaching Jane, she says, that she had sex with him at his house.

Jane did not raise any objections about her relationship with Garrett until after she learned he was seeing another student, she says. But she says her objections were not garden variety jealousy. Instead, Jane began to view Garrett as a master manipulator, using his position of authority to enamor students with compliments about their “refreshing” intellect.

“If I had found out that day that the person who he was involved with was not a student, I would have felt completely differently,” she said.

'Gut Feeling' Relationship Was Wrong

Three of Garrett’s former students say the professor expressed a unique level of trust with them -- a sort of cosmic connection. In all three cases, the students say Garrett described himself as heartbroken over his ex-wife and thankful to find such trusted companions with whom he could commiserate about matters of life and love.

One student, named “Sally” in this story, says she first encountered Garrett outside of class at a department store, where the two wound up talking for almost two hours about Sally's relationships and other personal matters.

“At the end, I remember him saying ‘I hate to leave you.’ I didn’t know how to take that," Sally said.

Shortly after that meeting, Sally says Garrett gave her a coffee mug she’d admired while they were in the store. Before long, they were exchanging e-mails four or five times a day. Sally says her frequent conversations in Garrett's office were "never" about academics, and Garrett “was in so many ways encouraging me to break up with my boyfriend, because he saw I was unhappy."

While Sally says she knew the relationship was teetering on romance, it wasn't until the two agreed to meet at a state park at the end of the semester that she felt it would become physical. Sally says she got cold feet, however, and backed out.

Despite the close personal nature of their relationship, Sally said Garrett expressed no ethical issues about her enrolling in another class with him during a subsequent semester. She said she had told Garrett, however, that she did not want to have continued personal contact with him because she valued him as a professor and didn’t want anything to interfere with that relationship.

“He did for the most part leave me alone,” she said. “Now I know he was with other students [at the time].”

It wasn’t until after Sally’s final class with Garrett that she visited his home, where she says Garrett made his first overt physical advance.

“He said 'I’ve never felt so close to someone,' ” she said. “He said 'I’m not a sexual person, but I want to touch you.' ”

Sally says she declined his advance, and left despite his invitation to stay the night.

“I had a gut feeling that I shouldn’t be doing this, and I finally listened to it,” she says.

Complaint Filed with Association

Given his counseling background, Garrett would be bound by the ethical standards of the American Counseling Association as well as any of the University of Florida’s own policies. According to the American Counseling Association's ethics policies, “sexual or romantic interactions or relationships with current students are prohibited.”

Edil Torres Rivera, a professor of counselor education at Florida who co-wrote books with Garrett, says he had heard nothing of Garrett having relationships with students prior to his resignation. Had he been aware of any such relationships, Rivera says he would have been ethically bound to report it to both the ACA and the National Board for Certified Counselors.

“If somebody had some knowledge of that they have to report it,” he says. “They don’t have a choice.”

“It’s almost like having a relationship with a client,” he adds. “It’s very clear in the ACA code of ethics as well as the NBCC licensing board.”

Subsequent to the launch of the university’s investigation into Garrett, an ethics complaint was filed against Garrett with the ACA, according to documents obtained by Inside Higher Ed.

“As a counselor educator, Dr. Garrett exploited the trust implicit in the counselor educator-student/supervisee relationship in direct violation of ACA ethics,” the complaint says. “The young woman, on whose behalf I am entering this complaint, feels personally betrayed and humiliated in realizing that she became a victim of this superior whom she admired and trusted.”

While Garrett has resigned and an ethics complaint has been issued, students interviewed for this article say they are still concerned other future students might be manipulated by Garrett, just as they believe they were. In sharing their stories publicly, the students say they hope Garrett won't have the opportunity to interact with students again.

“I am completely angry,” Sally says. “I want to make sure he does not do it again. He has no remorse. He has not apologized to any of these girls. I take responsibility for what I did, but I also feel I was severely tricked and duped and victimized by him.”

For three women who enrolled in a graduate program seeking to learn how to help others, they say they leave University of Florida feeling fearful, manipulated and confused about how to square their passion for counseling with what they say occurred in the care of a counselor.

“I loved my program,” one student says. “And that has changed that for me.”

 

 

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