Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society is investigating allegations by two female students that the community college honors group's longtime leader sexually harassed them.
The allegations against Rod Risley, the group's executive director and C.E.O., have provoked letters of concern from presidents of the two community colleges the students attended, as well as court filings and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints.
Rachel Reeck, 23, and Toni Marek, 36, served as P.T.K. student international officers in the 2013-14 school year. They say that during that time they experienced sexual harassment, intimidation, inappropriate touching and unprofessional behavior by Risley.
Risley denies the allegations and claims Marek is retaliating because she was asked to resign from the student-elected position after she failed to meet the guidelines and responsibilities of being an international officer. He alleges that Reeck is helping her good friend and is seeking a financial settlement.
Besides his March 13 statement, Risley said he was advised by the P.T.K. board not to comment further on the allegations and asked questions to be directed to the board.
P.T.K., which is based in Jackson, Miss., has more than 2.5 million members and 1,250 international chapters. The organization promotes scholarship and leadership among two-year college students. International officers are student representatives and are expected to attend events and seminars and to visit the P.T.K. headquarters. Risley was elected P.T.K. national president as a student in 1974 and joined the organization as an employee in 1977, as the alumni affairs director. In 1985, he was named executive director. According to 2013 tax documents, Risley made approximately $743,000 in annual compensation.
Support for Students From Presidents
Marek, a military veteran and mother of two, attended Victoria College in Texas at the time of the allegations. Reeck is a nursing student at Western Technical College in Wisconsin.
In September, Victoria College President Tom Butler sent a letter to P.T.K. Board Chairman Everett Johnson explaining that the college “recognizes the serious nature of the allegations and the importance of protecting other P.T.K. members at future meetings and functions under any circumstance."
Butler said he wanted to make sure the college was supporting its students and so he launched its own investigation. However, he said the results were "inconclusive" because the college doesn't have access to documents or personnel interviews for an outside organization like P.T.K.
His letter continued to state: "To this end we respectfully request that P.T.K. consider the following actions as a good faith response to our concerns regarding the complaint raised by Ms. Marek: sexual harassment training for Dr. Risley and P.T.K. staff who may have interactions with students… distribution of notices to students in attendance at P.T.K. conferences and conventions regarding P.T.K.’s commitment to nondiscrimination and its prohibition of sexual harassment and retaliation for complaints of harassment."
Western Technical President Lee Rasch also sent Johnson a letter in January stating that he was “deeply troubled” by the allegations, especially because he witnessed the commitment and respect students, including Reeck, hold for Risley. Rasch called for the organization to investigate the allegation and take action.
“Rachel, a very ethical young woman from rural western Wisconsin, held this same trusting admiration as she entered the 2013-14 year of service. As stated, when someone is in a position of significant influence and authority, they bear the responsibility of this role in maintaining the trust of students and representing the organization with integrity,” Rasch said. “Clearly, Rod Risley failed in this regard. Our college is taking steps to form our own honor society as a result of this incident.”
The P.T.K. board has launched its own investigation into the allegations through a Mississippi-based law firm, Watkins & Eager.
"In fairness and out of respect for the rights of all the involved parties, we won't comment on the specific allegations," Johnson said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. "I can confirm that the board is aware that allegations have been made and has asked for a thorough and independent review. Dr. Risley denies all of the allegations and is cooperating fully with the ongoing investigation."
In April 2013, Reeck and Marek were two of five P.T.K. members elected by students to serve as international officers. The position meant representing the honor society at regional meetings and education conferences, and communicating with chapters and members. P.T.K. describes the position as "the highest pinnacle of leadership."
A little more than a month after she became an international officer, in May 2013, Marek told Inside Higher Ed, Risley inappropriately touched her as the team of five international officers posed for a photo.
“He came up behind me and grabbed my rear, buttocks. He grabbed me and squeezed me and I gave him a shocked look," and backed away, Marek said. “I told him, ‘no,’ in a very low, but very firm voice. I’m 36… I felt as an older woman, I could get across to him that that was completely unacceptable. But he smirked at me and walked away.”
Reeck said she saw Risley’s actions.
At the time, Marek said she was scared about how to handle the situation and decided to dismiss it and hope nothing similar would happen again.
“We were afraid to come forward because there was a fear of what would happen to us,” Marek said. “As officers, we were constantly being told if we were doing something right or wrong. We were just afraid. We were walking on eggshells.”
Marek said she wanted to work in higher education and feared that dream wouldn’t be possible if she made the wrong move in her position with the honor society.
Marek's court filings against P.T.K. and Risley stated that in January 2014, during a P.T.K. dinner in Mississippi, Risley "rubbed and touched" her on the inner left thigh, right shoulder and back. She attempted to leave the dinner table three to four times to avoid his behavior, and she made comments about it to another employee. The day after the dinner, Risley suspended her and she was forced to resign, she alleged in an E.E.O.C. complaint.
"As old as I am, I was scared. I was there on their dime… I was terrified and they told me not to choose suspension because I could be suspended from my college,” Marek said in a phone interview. “As soon as I signed [my resignation], they walked me out and I was on a plane in under an hour.”
Marek said she was told never to communicate with the other team members. Reeck said the team initially was informed that Marek was fine, but then later told she resigned and they should end all communication with her. Johnson and Risley would not comment on the allegations.
Meanwhile, Reeck said she received text messages from Risley detailing his feelings for her that made her uncomfortable, according to her E.E.O.C. complaint. In an interview, Reeck said the communication included Facebook.
One message from March 2014, in a screenshot sent to Inside Higher Ed, shows Risley encouraging Reeck to attend a college event in Minneapolis. He offers to personally pay for her travel but asks her not to reveal his invitation and where the money was from.
“I was scared to be at an event he was at, but he was so adamant. I don’t want to say he forced me, but I thought, if I don’t make this man happy, I will be fired,” Reeck said. “I was so close to my year being done. I just wanted to finish.”
During that trip to Minneapolis, Reeck said, Risley asked her to drive him back to his hotel. When they arrived, he requested a hug. As both of them got out of the car, Reeck said Risley forcibly kissed her and she could smell alcohol on his breath. After the incident, Risley de-friended and blocked her on Facebook, she said.
“On the surface, despite a significant age difference, this might be seen as behavior between two adults. However, in his role as executive director, Rod Risley bears a substantial responsibility for the influence and authority of his position with regard to students,” Western Technical President Rasch wrote in his letter to P.T.K.
By April, Marek said, she had spoken to other members of P.T.K.’s leadership about her allegations, but nothing happened. She did receive a cease and desist letter in February 2014 from Watkins & Eager from making “false and defamatory statements” about the organization and Risley.
E.E.O.C. Complaints and Lawsuit
In April, after the cease and desist letter, Marek decided to file an E.E.O.C. complaint and asked P.T.K.’s board of directors to conduct an investigation into Risley’s behavior. Marek’s complaint stated that while working as an international officer, she had "been retaliated against based on my sex, female, in violation of Title VII…" The commission dismissed the claim in June. It found that Marek was not a P.T.K. employee and therefore not entitled to file a workplace discrimination complaint.
In September, she filed a federal lawsuit in the Southern District of Texas for employment discrimination. However the court dismissed her lawsuit in February, also because of her nonemployee status.
Marek said she doesn’t currently have a lawyer and can’t afford one, especially since she isn’t seeking financial compensation. She did briefly consult with an attorney, who attempted to contact P.T.K on her behalf following the cease and desist letter.
Reeck also says she isn't seeking a financial settlement. However, she consulted with an attorney who contacted P.T.K. in December, on her behalf, and stated Reeck was seeking $25,000 for emotional damage. She has since rescinded that demand.
In January, Reeck also filed an E.E.O.C. complaint for sexual harassment by Risley. Last month, an E.E.O.C. representative advised her that she could seek mediation.
Reeck said she contacted the representative two weeks ago to say that she would consider mediation if Risley were suspended from his duties as P.T.K. executive director. The E.E.O.C. recently contacted Reeck to say the case would be handled in Mississippi. But because the incidents occurred in Minnesota, she is trying to have it moved.
In a phone interview on March 13 with Inside Higher Ed, Risley called the allegations false and said the P.T.K. board is aware of them and that the complaints made by Reeck and Marek have been dismissed.
“International officers… after being elected, sign an honors code and also agree to the guidelines of serving as an international officer. In the case of Marek, there were certain responsibilities and behaviors that over a period of time had been counseled by our staff,” Risley said in a phone interview. “In January, it all came to a head, in terms of the behavior [that] was so inconsistent with what was expected and it was in violation of the honors code and the guidelines. Staff recommended to me that she be given the opportunity to resign or be suspended. [The infractions were] fully explained to her and her tenure as an international officer concluded. Now, understand Reeck and Marek are best friends and there’s a lot of cooperation going on there.”
Marek said she doesn’t know their reasoning for removing her from the position, besides her reaction to Risley.
“I was never given anything in writing and I’ve asked multiple times,” she said, adding that she contacted Johnson to start an appeals process, but he informed her that he wasn’t aware of the situation and she would have to speak with Risley.
Marek also has a performance evaluation from P.T.K. and emails from an associate director, which she shared with Inside Higher Ed, that applaud her performance as an international officer and rate her as "excellent." Her lowest mark was "needs some improvement" in "presentation skills."
Risley told Inside Higher Ed that beyond his statement, he couldn’t speak to the allegations. He referred further questions to Board Chair Johnson and Walter Bumphus, who serves as a board member and is the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Bumphus said the board is aware of the allegations and has been informed that Marek's legal complaints were dismissed.
"We take sexual harassment in any form seriously and would never condone anything like that, especially with students,” he said. “It’s a serious allegation and as a college leader and association leader, I have great confidence in Rod individually and as a board member. I’ve known him for 20 or so years and this is so out of character of the Rod I know.”
Bumphus said the board is obligated to do its due diligence and that there has been an ongoing investigation by Watkins & Eager.
“I have the utmost confidence in Dr. Risley and certainly it would be a total shock and surprise to me if any of these allegations were proven true,” he said.
In a phone interview, Victoria College President Butler said he did receive a reply to his letter from P.T.K. stating that it had not been able to determine if the allegations were true and that it hadn’t been able to reach Marek. Marek said she briefly attempted to contact P.T.K. through a lawyer, because she felt uncomfortable speaking with the group's lawyers. Her lawyer was unsuccessful making contact, she said.
“The college has from the beginning of this process been watching to see how things have developed and making sure we’re supporting our students,” Butler said. “But this is continuing. It’s not finished and so we continue to watch and are hopeful for a good outcome for Ms. Marek and for Phi Theta Kappa.”
Julie Lemon, the communications coordinator for Western Technical College, said that while P.T.K. continues to operate on campus, the college is considering starting a new honor society depending on the outcome of the Reeck allegations.
Rasch, the college's president, received a response to his January letter on Monday from Johnson. In the letter, Johnson states: "Ms. Reeck has communicated her allegations through an attorney directly to Phi Theta Kappa, coupled with a significant monetary demand. In these circumstances, Phi Theta Kappa has had no alternative but to tender Ms. Reeck’s allegations to its attorneys for appropriate review and evaluation. For that reason and respect for the privacy of all involved, I trust you will understand that we are unable to comment further on Ms. Reeck’s allegations. Having said that, I can tell you that we have engaged independent counsel to review the allegations and report to our board its findings. Our review will be independent, neutral and thorough.”
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