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One December evening, Sophie was sexually harassed by a teacher. Help was not easy to find.

2018.03.01 | Marie Groth Andersen

Illustration by Louise Thrane Jensen

Sofie sits at her computer, googling. Is there a student ambassador at AU? No. What about the student counsellors? No, her student counsellors are students like she is, in fact even younger, so getting them involved doesn’t feel right either. Sofie keeps on googling, but no luck. She finally ends up sending a mail to the head of her department. She writes:

“I really need to have a meeting with you before Christmas, and preferably as quickly as possible. 

It’s about an extremely unpleasant episode I had with a teacher. 

I feel terrible, which is why I’ve decided to write to you now instead of waiting until after Christmas – I simply can’t handle that.” 

Christmas lunch at the department

The previous Friday, Sofie had gone to a Christmas lunch with several fellow students from the university. On the same day, her department at the Faculty of Science and Technology held its annual Christmas lunch. Though the party is primarily for employees, students can attend as well. Sophie had gone to the departmental Christmas lunch the previous year. But in the course of the evening, a teacher had put his hands up under her dress and between her legs. When that happened, Sofie got up and left.

“And I was not super interested in going to the department Christmas lunch again,” she explains. 

Popped over to the Friday bar

At one point, Sofie left her Christmas lunch and popped over to the Friday bar to see if there was anyone she knew and wish them Merry Christmas. Even though the Christmas lunch was officially over, several staff members had decided to keep the party going at the Friday bar.    

“There were both students and employees at the Friday bar, including some people I knew and one of my former teachers.”

Sofie’s teacher Kim had supervised one of her papers, and she was extremely interested in working in his field one day – a field she had been interested in since secondary school.

“We’re sitting at the same table, and we have a few beers, and at some point the Friday bar closes, and some of the university employees say that they have a stash of beer somewhere else at the department.”    

The kiss

The party sets off in search of the beer. Along the way, Sofie and Kim stop off at his office.

“We’re sitting on either side of his desk, having a beer, and we’re talking about being at the department – academic stuff. He’s very drunk. I had also been drinking, but I was definitely not wasted.” 

After they chat for a bit, Sofie suggests that they rejoin the others. They get up to leave, but when they reach the door, Kim suddenly kisses her.

“It came out of the blue,” says Sofie.

She realises that he’s blocking the door so she can’t leave the office.

“My reaction is to panic and freeze – I stand still and I’m scared. And then I start trying to smooth things over, and I say something like ‘You don’t want to do this’. Instead of saying ‘I don’t want to do this’. I wanted to just slip out of the situation without a lot of drama, instead of making a scene. And I’ve struggled with that since – to accept my own reaction,” she says.

Sofie’s perception of the situation was that there hadn’t been any flirtation between them.

“I totally didn’t see it coming – I thought: Why is he doing that? Was this something he’d thought about before? When did it start? That night? Before?  My stomach hurts when I think about it.”

She explains that she had been demonstrating a lot of purely academic interest in his field and his research group for quite a some time.

“And definitely more interest than the other students.”

Kim doesn’t stop at the kiss. He starts touching Sofie’s breasts, pulls down her dress and takes off her bra, exposing her breasts completely.

“I totally don’t remember doing anything with my arms, like pushing him away or running over to the other side of the office.” 

“I totally don’t remember doing anything with my arms, like pushing him away or running over to the other side of the office,” Sofie says.

She doesn’t try to get out of the situation until he tries to pull her down onto his lap.

“I think: This isn’t going stop. This is totally wrong. I can’t keep trying to deflect it. And then I get up, and I say I have to pee, pick up my bra from the floor and run sobbing down the hall.”

Only at this point does Kim realise that Sofie isn’t interested.    

”You should consider reporting it”

Sofie wants to see a friend, so she calls him. But he’s in Copenhagen. So she calls her father.

“He says I should consider reporting it to the police. I think: No, no, no, because obviously, I haven’t been raped.” 

Later she thinks that it might have been a good idea to report the incident.

“But the reason I didn’t do that is that I didn’t feel like it was a crime, even though now I can see that it was sexual misconduct. But it seemed extreme to go to the police about something on the borderline between legal and illegal.”

Sofie goes back to her Christmas lunch.

“The people who are still there are drunk. I don’t want anyone to touch me. But I don’t want to go home either – I want there to be people around me.”

“My friends react like something terrible has happened to me. At that point I’m not thinking at all – I feel like I’m in shock.”

At her wits' end 

Over the course of the weekend, Sofie realises that she can’t simply put the experience behind her as an unfortunate episode at a party. And that she doesn’t want to handle it alone.

“But I didn’t know who to write to. I didn’t know what to do.” 

“But I didn’t know who to write to. I didn’t know what to do.” 

She ends up contacting the head of her department.

“I didn’t know him very well before that. I was really nervous about meeting with him. I was afraid of the conflict, afraid to see my teacher, afraid to say something wrong. I knew that when I told my story that it would be my truth. Kim’s truth might be different. I could be accused of lying. I was afraid of what they were going to do about it. And I felt guilty about stepping forward and speaking about the episode – I felt like I was being a troublemaker, and that it would be easier if I shut my mouth. But I refused to deal with it all alone. I didn’t think that was fair. What happened is wrong.”

Sofie’s meeting with the department head took the form of a confidential conversation, and no minutes were taken.

“To begin with, I felt he was extremely receptive and sympathetic,” Sofie remembers.

“We agreed to speak again after the Christmas holiday, because he needed to give the case more thought and investigate some things.”

“Knowing that my department head was going to speak to Kim too was awful. Did that mean he thought I’d gone along with it voluntarily?”    

”This is not so good”

After Sofie storms out of his office, Kim stares at the open door.

“I think, this is not so good. And then I go home.”

Kim doesn’t contact Sofie the next day. But after the Christmas holiday, the department head contacts him, and informs him that Sofie has filed a complaint against him. Both Kim and Sofie are asked to submit a written account of their version of what happened on that evening in December.    

Way over the line

Kim begins his statement by apologising profusely for making Sofie feel violated in any way.

“That was not my intention, and I would like to offer her an unqualified apology,” he writes. 

Today, he explains that he had felt that Sofie had been quite interested in him for some time.

“She seemed really interested in me – at social events she would come and sit next to me, she told me personal things and wanted me to be her teacher and thesis supervisor.”

“That night, I actually just went to my office on my way home. And then Sofie came into my office with some beers. We sit right here at the desk, talking, and she praises me for being so smart. At that time, I’m not in a relationship, and already feel like she’s interested in me. And so I kiss her.”

“She laughed – maybe she was flustered or surprised?” says Kim, who didn’t realise that Sofie was trying to talk her way out of the situation.

“And I definitely didn’t intend to block her way. But I can certainly see how she could perceive that as a threatening situation. After all, I’m bigger than she is physically.”

“In my intoxication, I misread her interest as more than purely academic interest, and so I went way over the line. But of course I shouldn’t do anything like that. That’s clear.”

“In my intoxication, I misread her interest as more than purely academic interest, and so I went way over the line. But of course I shouldn’t do anything like that. That’s clear.”

Kim stresses that he was not Sofie’s supervisor or teacher when the episode took place.

“It was not a question of me abusing a position of power, but I am still in a senior position in relation to her. What I did was wrong.”    

A disciplinary interview

After submitting his statement, Kim was summoned to a disciplinary interview with the department head, along with a representative from HR.

“I’m given a reprimand, and it seems clear to me that I’ll be fired if anything at all ever happens again.” 

Kim considered telling his students about the episode.

“I knew that some of them had heard about it. And so I considered giving them my version of the story. But I didn’t. I thought it was embarrassing and extremely unpleasant.”    

It's not fair

Afterwards, Sofie and Kim met at a meeting with a HR representative, on Sofie’s initiative.

“I didn’t want to meet with him at first, but things started building up inside me, and I thought: Let’s meet now and look each other in the eye, and I’ll say what I need to say.” 

“The meeting was unpleasant, and I was close to tears the whole time. Kim said that he was sorry, and that it was ok for me to think that he’s a total idiot. I explain that it’s affecting me a lot, and that it’s not fair that he put me in this situation. It’s not going to stop for me because he says he’s sorry.”    

Let down by the system

Even though Sofie initially felt that her department head handled the incident well, nonetheless she still feels that the system let her down.

“There wasn’t anyone who was exclusively on my side. They had other roles that involved protecting someone else as well. And I felt that it was up to me to evaluate and describe what steps needed to be taken.” 

“There wasn’t anyone who was exclusively on my side. They had other roles that involved protecting someone else as well. And I felt that it was up to me to evaluate and describe what steps needed to be taken.” 

At the same time, she felt that the case was closed and swept under the carpet after Kim apologised.    

What should you do as a student

“I had a really strong sense of injustice, because I felt that my teacher got off with an apology and a warning, while I was left with a lot of problems. So I asked the department for a consultation with a psychologist to get some help handling my feelings about it. Unfortunately, it was a really bad experience, and afterwards I arranged for therapy myself.”

Sofie believes strongly that there is a need for a clearly defined process for how the university handles cases like hers. And more openness. 

“It was as if no one was allowed to know about it. It’s a confidential case that’s hushed up.”

“I wish there were clear guidelines for what you should do as a student – where should you go? What should the department head do? Who should know about it? How do we react to cases like this? How do we investigate them? It shouldn’t be up to the department head alone to decide what needs to happen.”

“It’s also important for the university’s executive management to be open about whether there’s a zero tolerance policy for these kinds of offences or not. If there is a zero tolerance policy, then there have to be real consequences. Otherwise you have to be honest and say that there isn’t zero tolerance.”    

The right thing to do

The department head thinks that Sofie did the right thing by contacting him as quickly as possible.

“I’m glad she came to me. It was the right thing to do – I’m just as much the students’ boss as the employees’ boss here at the department,” he says. 

However, the department head will not discuss this particular case in more detail.

“I think it’s good that students have someone who will fight for them locally. And another advantage of handling it locally is that I know the procedures and the governing and advisory bodies at the local level.”

But can you understand how it might be a little odd to go to you for help, considering that you’re the teacher’s boss?

“I don’t have any interests in relation to either party, except making sure justice is served. My role is to speak with the parties involved and listen to what’s happened, and what their expectations are for the process. If something needs to be reported to the police, I help with that too. And I can get advice from HR and the dean if I need to.”

And in fact department head asked Sofie if she wanted to report the episode. She did not.

Despite the fact that you handle the case for both parties, there is a difference between students and employees, after all. There’s a difference between being in an employment relationship and possibly also being a valued academic asset the department has an interest in holding on to, and being a student who moves on after five-seven years.

“A model where the student has the option of going to an independent body, but which ensures that I as department head am still informed about what goes on at my department, would be one possible solution.”

“That’s right. There is an asymmetry. So a model where the student has the option of going to an independent body, but which ensures that I as department head am still informed about what goes on at my department, would be one possible solution.”

The department head adds that at a department meeting held after the episode between Kim and Sofie, he stressed that the department will not accept misconduct or sexual harassment.    

“We will not accept that anyone abuses their authority over another person, either sexually or in other ways.”

But what does that mean in practice? Have you introduced a policy forbidding sexual relations between students and employees?

“No, we have not. Trust and freedom are high priorities for me. And with trust and freedom comes responsibility. I’m not a advocate of concrete rules – everyone know what appropriate behaviour is.”

Has the episode had any disciplinary consequences for the teacher? 

“I can’t comment on this particular case, but these kinds of incidents lead to conversations which are far from cosy.”

Sofie and Kim have both asked to remain anonymous. Their real names have been withheld, but their identities are known to the editorial team. The identity of the department head has been withheld in order to ensure his anonymity.

The episode took place in December 2015. Sofie graduated last summer.


READ MORE: AU to establish new independent body to handle abuse and harassment

Translated by Lenore Messick 

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