On the evening of September 12, the blare of a fire alarm cleared the hallways and classrooms of Arapahoe Community College in Littleton. It was just a drill, but it sparked a sexual-harassment bonfire that has yet to die down.
Outside the building that night, Richard Lebowitz and a male friend approached a female student. Lebowitz told her she looked good and that she would also look good with him and his friend. And he asked her for a date.
Not only did the woman turn him down, she reported Lebowitz's comments to campus cop Michael Jones.
After the fire drill ended, Jones went to the Introduction to Radio class in which Lebowitz was enrolled and asked him to step outside. Then Jones explained the woman's concerns.
The Arapahoe campus had been agitated over the issue of unwanted advances ever since a part-time student, Stephen Gordon, was arrested last spring for stalking an Arizona woman who'd moved to Denver to escape his attentions.
Lebowitz told the officer that his comments had been misconstrued. A few minutes later he rejoined his classmates, explaining that he'd been accused of sexual harassment.
Sitting in the class was Lisbeth Mullin, a reporter with the student newspaper. She listened as Lebowitz joked about the situation, complaining that in today's society he could no longer attempt to "talk to a pretty blond."
Before returning to school as a 41-year-old journalism student, Mullin had been an activist in such areas as domestic violence, gay and lesbian matters and disabled issues. "I have a long feminist history, but I try to be balanced," she told Westword. "When I came back to school, I was going to lay low. I certainly didn't go out of my way to find sexual-harassment problems."
But, as she described it, "the universe" dropped the Lebowitz incident "on my lap, and as a journalist, I thought I should do the story as unbiased as possible."
Still, Mullin said she agonized overnight about whether to approach her editor at the Rapp Street Journal, the college's biweekly newspaper, before deciding to go ahead. Searching her college telephone directory, she had discovered that Lebowitz was not just a student; he also taught business economics at the school.
Mullin said that editor Michael "Doc" Simpson, an electronics major, insisted she write the story. Simpson told Westword he felt pressured by Mullin to go with not just one article but ultimately an entire section on sexual harassment.
In collaboration with two other staffers, including news editor James Bridgers, Mullin wrote a front-page story--which was published under a generic "RSJ staff" byline--in which she used the unusual technique of quoting herself in the third person ("Mullin") as "a student in the class and witness to Jones's removal of the alleged perpetrator from the classroom." Mullin also wrote about the incident in her regular "Hair of the Dogma" column.
The column and story were printed in the September 21 issue, along with a notation that Lebowitz was unavailable for comment. On September 19, Bridgers says, Lebowitz stormed into the newspaper's offices and demanded that the article not be published, saying that "false allegations could be hazardous to his career," that publication of the allegations would "automatically make him guilty with the president and administration" and that "students would be after him." He also handed Bridgers a statement, which he asked the paper to publish.
Bridgers said that the issue had already gone to press. But Lebowitz's statement did not appear in subsequent issues, either.
Although Lebowitz did not return phone calls, Westword received a copy of his statement, along with Bridgers's notes of their meeting.
In his statement, Lebowitz described seeing "a striking, attractive woman" and going over to speak with her. "I thought I was trying to be complimentary and friendly," he wrote. "I do not know if it was the tone of my voice, my age, physical appearance, my accent, the style of my delivery, the words which I spoke, all of the above. The woman obviously found my brief intrusion into her life to be repugnant.
"I wish to apologize to the woman for in my own mind I was only being complimentary and friendly."
In her column, Mullin wrote that she herself had seen Lebowitz the night of the fire drill, "in a very social mood, laughing and pressing hands with faculty and students alike--as if he were the center of attention at a party in his honor." She'd watched as Lebowitz walked toward the blond woman; then, sensing "that he was going to hit on her," she'd turned away. "Now, of course, I wish I had listened," she wrote. "Could I have intervened?
"What could I have done at the time to help you out of the situation?" she continued, addressing her question to the woman. But in the next paragraph, Mullin provided her own answer by noting that "obviously you didn't need my assistance to stand up for yourself."
Mullin wrapped up her column with a series of questions: "Where are the boundaries between social dating rituals and victimization? Would this situation have been different if the alleged perpetrator wasn't a faculty member? Is there ever a situation where it would be okay for two people to walk up to a stranger standing alone and make sexual innuendos?
"Is this becoming a case of media bias affecting the outcome of a potentially benign situation?"
Good question. Although the woman never lodged a formal complaint and no charges were filed against Lebowitz, on November 10 the Rapp Street Journal published an eight-page special section on sexual harassment, much of it written by Mullin. The issue discussed the stalking allegations against Stephen Gordon and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill case, but made no mention of the Lebowitz incident.
Mullin told Westword she'd asked "ten liberal faculty members" to write essays, but only instructor Polly Rogers responded to her request. "Personally speaking," Rogers wrote, "I have been aware of numerous examples of behaviors on the parts of both teachers toward students and students toward teachers that exceed the comfort zone." Rogers concluded that the issue poses a "difficult question without an easy answer."
In yet another opinion column, Mullin complained that she felt as though she were swimming alone on the subject of sexual harassment. Despite her efforts, she said, she had not received any positive remarks in written form.
And she didn't get any after the section ran, either--including from her own editor, who was no stranger to the subject. Last year, when Simpson served on the student government, he was accused of sexual harassment. In a column he wrote this fall, he said he was unaware that his flirtatious behavior--which he contends was returned--was not welcomed.
According to Simpson, reaction to the special section was "apathetic." "No one cares," he said, adding that Mullin pressured him into running the special section, which was "too much" and "not very well done." If he had it to do over again, he added, he wouldn't have published the original story or Mullin's first column, either.
"It was at least premature to run them," he said. "I mean, this woman never pressed charges; she apparently didn't need to. He said, `Let's go out,' and she said no, and he hasn't bugged her since. I mean, he wasn't her instructor; she didn't have to drop out of his class. He had no power over her."
Simpson, who works in a nightclub and sees "worse examples every night of the week," said the newspaper's investigation revealed that Lebowitz has a less than stellar social reputation on campus but "doesn't have any kind of recorded criminal history or complaints about this kind of behavior. And he wasn't stalking her."
Mullin, however, claimed the newspaper's coverage has "opened a whole lot of stuff on campus," where in the past cases of sexual harassment had been swept under the rug. While the alleged victim in the Lebowitz incident has not come forward, Mullin said she's heard from three other women who plan to file sexual-harassment complaints against the college administration.
"I think I did an excellent job of bringing this to the public eye," Mullin said. "And I did it as fairly as possible."
Judy Zewe, the school's director of human resources, said the administration conducted an informal investigation into the Lebowitz situation and concluded that no case could be made for sexual harassment.
"Essentially, it didn't exist," Zewe said. "The woman never even told him that she was offended by his remarks. Someone else decided to take offense, and really, the whole thing was blown out of proportion.
"He was convicted before he had a chance to defend himself," added Zewe. "And if we had tried to bring a formal complaint, he would have probably been within his rights to bring litigation against us."
Lebowitz was reminded of the school's sexual-harassment policy, Zewe said, but that was the extent of the administration's actions.
"On reflection," Simpson said, "I've been wrestling with how we went after the story. Is one little, `Hey, babe, let's go out,' worth the end of his career? To tell you the truth, this whole `I'm a victim' thing is really starting to bug me. Every day, people have to learn to deal with things they don't like--it's part of life--without having to sue every time they get offended."
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But late last week, after Simpson made those comments to Westword, Mullin lodged a sexual-harassment complaint with the school against the editor, as well as a grievance against him for what she would describe only as "personnel matters" at the Rapp Street Journal. Pending a hearing on the charges, Simpson was removed from his position as editor and replaced by the paper's two assistant editors--both of them women.
Mullin declined to discuss what Simpson did to warrant the sexual-harassment allegation.
Why? Replied Mullin, "I think it would be unethical to discuss the details before anyone has had a chance to respond.