An FSU student who was questioned by two Campus Police officers during an investigation into charges of cyberbullying alleged that her rights and livelihood were threatened during the encounter.
Victoria Dansereau, a junior psychology major, said she has called the American Civil Liberties Union in order to hire a lawyer to investigate whether to take legal action against at least one officer who questioned her, and is planning on filing a Title IX complaint.
Dansereau is one of many students who have been questioned by Campus Police about the alleged cyberbullying of two students who posted a photo on Instagram of themselves dressed in controversial Halloween costumes. In the photo, the female student wore makeup that made her look as if she had a black eye, and the male student posed with his fist raised toward her.
Danerseau said she saw the photo after hearing about the Halloween costumes from a friend and then searching for the photo on Instagram. She then posted a status on Facebook that said, “A girl at my school dressed up for Halloween as ‘a domestic violence victim.’ I hope you know that you’re disgusting to the core for a) sexualizing domestic violence, and b) making it comedic in the same breath. You’re clearly going somewhere in life.”
Dansereau said she was called on Saturday morning and asked to come to the Campus Police station “immediately.”
When she was taken into a room to be questioned, she said she felt the officers were “hostile” toward her. According to Dansereau, the two officers had printouts of her Facebook post, as well as other information about her from her Facebook profile page.
Dansereau said the conversation started with an officer saying, “‘You can’t do this. This goes beyond your freedom of speech. You don’t know this girl, so you have no right to say anything.’”
She added that the officer leading the questioning said it was “suspicious that I hadn’t commented on any other person’s costume.” Dansereau alleged that the officer added, “‘Oh, you’re a women’s right advocate – you don’t think any other costume was demoralizing? Because other people were dressed like skanks.’”
Dansereau also said the officer told her she was a “poor excuse for a women’s rights advocate” and what she had written on Facebook was “harassment.”
She said she felt intimidated when an officer told her that Dean of Students Melinda Stoops was planning on meeting with her for “disciplinary reasons.”
Dansereau contacted Stoops that day and spoke to her on Monday. According to Dansereau, Stoops didn’t know anything about her meeting with Campus Police.
Stoops told a Gatepost reporter, “I had no plan to meet with any of the students that Campus Police intended to speak with about this incident,” and added that it would have been “atypical” for her to be involved in a situation like this. If there were a student policy violation, the police officers would forward the report to the Student Conduct Office, which would not involve her, she said.
“It’s possible that Campus Police misspoke and referred to me, when maybe they were thinking someone from Student Conduct would be meeting with the person, but I can’t speak to that for sure, because I wasn’t there,” Stoops said.
Dansereau said an officer also said she would “most likely lose all” of her on-campus jobs because she “can’t act this way as a representative of the school.” Dansereau said she began to have a panic attack and started crying and breathing heavily during the interview with Campus Police. She said she relies on her jobs on campus to both afford school and help support her family.
She said she told the police officers that she is prone to panic attacks because of past domestic abuse, and she said she offered to show them her medical and psychiatric records to prove it. She alleged the officers gave her some tissues and continued with the interview.
She said she was told by an officer to take her post down from Facebook, which she said she did in the police station. She also alleged that she was told the police report would indicate that she was remorseful and this may help her keep her jobs.
Dansereau said Stoops told her only her employers have the authority to decide whether she would be fired. As of Wednesday, Dansereau said none of her employers had taken any action toward suspending or terminating her employment.
Dansereau, accompanied by Director of the Multicultural Center Kathy Martinez, met with Chief of Campus Police Brad Medeiros to discuss the encounter.
Martinez said, “I just want to mention that the actions of one officer or two do not necessarily reflect on everyone. And I do think, at least, after today’s meeting, that Chief Medeiros did handle this portion well.”
Dansereau said she told Medeiros that she felt the officers had threatened her job security, and “he seemed a bit confused as to why that was a tactic that they had used, because it [the Facebook post] has nothing to do with my positions on campus.”
A Gatepost reporter contacted Medeiros requesting an interview Wednesday, but he did not respond before the publication of this article.
While Dansereau said she thought that Medeiros was very professional, she is still planning to file a Title IX complaint against the officers who questioned her and is attempting to hire a lawyer.
“I’m not taking any of this lightly,” Dansereau said.
Student Press Law Center Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein said that in order to make a legitimate claim for a cyberbullying investigation, the harassment would have to be “so pervasive and so disturbing” that it interfered with the students’ education.
The alleged censoring of Dansereau’s Facebook post “is illegal,” Goldstein said. “It’s not the Facebook State Police Department.”
He added, “Even if everything these people are telling us is true, this is not a crime, so why are we investigating it?”
Stoops said FSU doesn’t have a specific cyberbullying policy, but it falls under the harassment policy, which includes electronic means. The policy states that harassment includes: “Intimidation, invasion of privacy, verbal abuse, or any conduct constituting harassment, abuse or threats to the well-being of a person or group.”
The second facet of this policy includes, “Harassment and/or intimidation of persons involved in a campus disciplinary hearing” or of authority figures “who are in the process of discharging their responsibilities.”
It also includes the use of “fighting words,” which means words which are likely to “provoke an immediate violent reaction.”
Martinez helped Dansereau look up the school’s policy on cyberbullying as well as other policies.
Martinez went with Dansereau to her meetings with Stoops and Medeiros. Martinez said that her “job here, first and foremost, is to support students. … My job is to be here for you, to help you out as much as I possibly can, but also to, I think, look at policies and think about them.”
She added that it’s important for students to understand their rights when being questioned by police officers. She said that students do not have to go to the police station when asked, and can ask to be recorded if they want to be.
Alanna Griffin, a senior criminology major, said she was also asked to come in for questioning by Campus Police. She missed the officer’s call, and when she called the office back, she was informed that her phone call was being recorded.
Griffin had posted a screen shot of the Instagram photo on Facebook with a comment that she couldn’t recall exactly, but she remembered she said that the costume was a bad idea. She said the post did not include names or tag the students.
She said the police officer she spoke with said she had freedom of speech and could post what she wanted to, but asked her to take down the photo.
Griffin said she took it down to be cooperative and that it didn’t bother her to remove it. She said the interaction with the officer also did not concern her, even though she was confused how Campus Police found her post. Griffin does not have an on-campus job.
President F. Javier Cevallos said that because this is a personnel concern since both the officer in question and Dansereau are employees of the school, the administration isn’t able to comment.
He added, however, that “the moment that you have a formal complaint against anyone, but particularly when it is a police officer, you have very specific protocol that you have to follow. … The complaint has to be investigated. There are no two ways about it.”
He said that generally speaking, the person in question can get union representation and the Chief of Campus Police will delegate someone to investigate the claim. “You have to look at all angles and talk to as many people as needed, and then they will make a decision based on the facts. It’s a very clear and a very legal process.”
However, Executive Vice President Dale Hamel, to whom Campus Police reports, said if there were a complaint filed, the investigation would not be handled by FSU Campus Police. “The Campus Police doesn’t investigate themselves. There is a separate approach that we would then take,” which would be led by the general counsel’s office.
Hamel said he hadn’t heard about a formal complaint being filed.
He added, “If she [Dansereau] did something that was questioned, it would become a personnel matter and we don’t speak to personnel matters.” Hamel added that the student’s status as an employee may have affected the way she was questioned by police. “Your duties as an employee are different than your duties as a student.”
He gave the example that if a student obtained information while on the job, it would become a bigger concern.
Stoops said if student workers “violate some condition of the job,” this would be handled by the office which employs them.
She added that as long as students aren’t violating policies or harassing anyone, their freedom of expression should be protected. “Going back to the rights of the individuals – going back to the original Halloween costumes that were offensive – I would agree that those were inappropriate costumes. However, the students who wore those costumes violated no policies and they had the right, in terms of freedom of expression, to wear those costumes – just as the people who were upset by those costumes had the right to say they were upset about it.”
Cevallos said, “We can all learn from what happened. First of all, we have to keep always in mind that freedom of expression is one of those things that we cherish in this nation more than anything else. And actually, freedom of speech exists precisely to protect speech that can be deemed offensive, or annoying or bothersome or troublesome,” referencing the Halloween costumes.
“We all as a campus have to learn that whatever we do has consequences,” he added. “Domestic violence is a huge issue that we have to address directly and we cannot tolerate that in our society. We have people in this society that are real victims. … Those kind of images can illicit responses that are really emotional, and rightly so. It is an educational opportunity for the campus to think about domestic violence.”
Cevallos said, “It’s a learning opportunity for the campus to think about the importance of protecting freedom of expression and also talking about domestic violence and the implications that it has.”
In fact, three students, including Dansereau, held a Diversity Dialogue this Thursday to discuss domestic abuse at the Multicultural Center. It was attended by about 15 students and 15 faculty and staff members. Another discussion will be held next Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Archives Room.