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USC Student's Sexual Harassment Claim Backed, But Professor Still On Staff

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — USC doctoral student Karissa Fenwick says her personal nightmare began in January, when she attended an academic conference in New Orleans with people from her department, including associate professor Erick Guerrero, the professor in charge of her doctoral dissertation committee. She says he made some unwanted physical advances in the hotel bar, then offered to call her an Uber from his hotel room.

"And as I got up to go outside he got up and put his hands on the sides of me and like brought me over to the bed and sat me down and leaned over me trying to kiss me and it was like at that moment a light switched on my head and like you have to get out of here now," Fenwick said.

She says she ran in tears out of the room. The next day, she says Guerrero told her not to tell anyone what happened.

"He said that he would take down anyone I told and that the dean would never take my side or let anything happen to him."

Fenwick says, on the dark airplane ride home, she felt scared and alone.

"On the one hand, reporting him felt like I was sabotaging my whole career," she said. "And on the other hand I felt like I could not stand back and just wonder if it was going to happen to somebody else if I never said anything. I felt I had to do it to protect other students.

The next day, Fenwick reported what she says happened to another professor at USC and an investigation got underway.

Seven months later, Fenwick received this letter from USC:

Dr. Guerrero told the university Karissa had been romantically interested in him, and that there was a "sexualized environment at the school towards him and that students referred to him as the "hot Latino professor."

The report goes on to say "none of the witnesses interviewed could recall hearing anyone refer to Dr. Guerrero by that name."

The university investigator concluded "that Dr. Guerrero made an unwelcome sexual advance toward you in a hotel room in New Orleans and attempted to dissuade you from reporting the incident."

USC Vice Provost Martin Levine notified professor Guerrero. The provost regards your offenses as sufficiently serious that he considered bringing charges leading to your dismissal, but has decided not to do so in this instance."

Instead, professor Guerrero was suspended one semester without pay, and will not be allowed to teach doctoral students for the next three years.

John Winer is representing Fenwick in the lawsuit filed this week against professor Guerrero and the university.

"It was a slap on the wrist. He should have been fired," Winer said. "There should have been an immediate warning to the student body. Especially once there are findings that this man is dangerous and to this day, that doesn't happen."

Fenwick says she hopes her story will help to warn other students.

And, she says, when she is on campus, she is paralyzed by the thought she might run into the professor.

"I can try to prepare myself for that in my head, but I think if when I have to see him again in real life I don't know how I would respond and that scares me too."

Statement from Dr. Guerrero:

I have been responding to these false allegations for almost 10 months.  I am here and I am not going anywhere. The allegations in the complaint are false and I have answered them in court this afternoon.  I respect that the court process will be rigorous and fair for everyone. I have peace of mind that things will be cleared out after the facts are revealed.

I have been a social worker in a female dominated profession for 20 years and have committed my career to promote equity and empower vulnerable groups. I would never put myself in a compromising situation that can take away all the things I have worked so hard to accomplish. I am proud to be one of few Mexican-American Professors with tenure at a world-class University. I married my dream partner, Emma who is also a USC professor and we are blessed now to have a six-month old baby girl.  I am living the American Dream and I am confident that this will end well for my family.

Statement From USC:

USC took the complaint of sexual harassment very seriously.  It thoroughly investigated the claims, and based on the findings it disciplined the faculty member involved.  In accordance with our policies, a financial penalty was imposed, he was barred from leadership positions, his office was relocated away from students, and he will not teach classes or supervise students for the current academic year and beyond.  And he was warned that any recurrence could lead to dismissal. 

During this process we sought to support the complainant by providing a new dissertation advisor and prohibiting her previous advisor from any and all contact with her.  We further provided her with additional school support.

The university is reviewing the recent legal filings to determine if additional action is warranted. 

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