- KRISTEN BLACK photo
By the time Darren Pitcher was named acting president of Spokane Falls Community College last year, his reputation was well-established among many women who worked around him.
Pitcher, who started as SFCC's vice president of student services in 2012, was a "ladies man" to some, always complimenting women on their looks as word of alleged affairs circulated through the office, according to investigative reports on Pitcher's behavior. He was seen as a "predator" to others, focusing sexual advances on vulnerable women, the records state.
The rumors in 2015 reached SFCC President Janet Gullickson, who was told then that Pitcher was having an affair with a subordinate.
More hints of his alleged behavior were relayed in 2016 to human resources, which was alerted that multiple women alleged sexual harassment from Pitcher.
Whispers spread among faculty members in 2017, who questioned whether a promotion in the college's administration was related to an alleged affair involving Pitcher, says Carla Naccarato-Sinclair, faculty president of Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS).
But no employee made what the college considered a formal complaint. Nobody fully investigated the rumors.
And Pitcher's power and influence within the college grew.
"I cannot think of a better person to serve in this important role," CCS Chancellor Christine Johnson said in spring 2017 when she named Pitcher SFCC's acting president, based in part on Gullickson's favorable assessment of his performance. CCS is the governing district in charge of SFCC and Spokane Community College.
It ate away at one woman who worked in SFCC student services under Pitcher, and who says Pitcher sexually harassed her, groped her, exposed himself to her and coerced her into having sex before he went on to victimize multiple other women.
"I watched him get the president's job, and I'm like, 'This is not right,'" says the woman, speaking to the Inlander on the condition of anonymity. "This is not right at all."
It took her and five other women to anonymously sign on to a complaint, which an attorney then sent to CCS officials, before the college district formally began looking into the allegations against Pitcher. Pitcher, who denies most allegations, abruptly resigned just over a month into a formal investigation. (Efforts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.)
In the fallout of his resignation, however, CCS and SFCC officials face questions regarding why the rumors about Pitcher went without an investigation for years, and how a public college can protect women wanting to report workplace harassment from public embarrassment.
'POSITION OF POWER'
- Darren Pitcher denies allegations of sexual harrassment, records show.
The earliest allegation of Pitcher "crossing the line" with the woman speaking with the Inlander occurred in 2013. While attending a conference, Pitcher texted the woman that he was looking at her "nice butt," she recalls.
She deleted and ignored the text, she says, but according to investigative reports gathered by CCS, it's similar to the kind of text Pitcher would later send other employees in the same student services department.
Over ensuing months and years, she says, the behavior progressed.
The woman, referred to as "Jane Doe 1" in CCS records, says he put his hand on her breast in February 2014 after she became emotional discussing a student suicide.
She says she saw him at conferences massaging one employee's shoulders, and joking about sleeping with another woman, who soon after transferred from Spokane Community College to SFCC for a promotion.
She says he grabbed her and exposed his penis to her in October 2014 right after discussing an administrator at another college who was accused of rape.
And then, weeks later while traveling for a sexual assault prevention conference in Seattle, she says they had sex twice. Though it was consensual, she says she felt like she had to do it for her job. Pitcher, according to her complaint, mentioned not long before that he had thought of firing her.
"He was in a position of power," she tells the Inlander.
Cynthia Vigil, the woman's direct supervisor at the time and currently the interim dean of Student Support Services, told the CCS investigator that she was confused why Pitcher went outside the "chain of command" and invited the woman to the conference in the first place.
The woman told one co-worker what happened at the conference but didn't report it, she tells the Inlander. After the conference, the woman says Pitcher turned his attention elsewhere — specifically, toward the woman who had just transferred from SCC for the promotion. Records of instant messages between Pitcher and that woman, identified by CCS records as "Jane Doe 9," give a peek into their relationship: Pitcher called her "sweet cheeks," commented on her breast implants and asked if she needed "anything rubbed." Both deny any physical relationship.
Meanwhile, in 2015, Gullickson was provided with cell phone records showing the frequency of texts between Pitcher and another colleague. The records show the two texted each other nearly 4,000 times in the course of just over a month, up to 559 times in a day. They denied any sexual relationship. Gullickson says she "did verbally reprimand both of them" in 2015, but they continued to communicate frequently, witnesses say in CCS records. Gullickson declined to comment for this article.
Naccarato-Sinclair, the faculty president, says when the faculty found out the woman was promoted and asked Gullickson about it last spring, Gullickson told them she had taken care of any concerns raised by the relationship, though no formal investigation ever occurred. Gullickson shredded documents related to the matter when she left SFCC last year to take a job in Virginia, CCS investigative records show, though her assistant kept a file of the cell phone records.
Meanwhile, another woman hired to work closely with Pitcher in 2016, identified in records as "Jane Doe 2," began keeping a log of his behaviors. In his role, Pitcher also served as the SFCC Title IX coordinator, meaning he handled student sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual assault cases, and he brought Jane Doe 2 into his office to discuss one case. She noted that "the question of consent was the crux of the issue" and that she felt like "he was really enjoying discussing sexually explicit details with me."
She changed her routine so she would never have to be alone with him. She timed her trips to the bathroom to avoid him looking at her, investigative records state.
Jane Doe 1, the woman speaking with the Inlander who says she was harassed starting in 2013, finally revealed to other co-workers in summer 2016 what allegedly happened. She says she wanted to warn them about Pitcher's behavior. One of the co-workers, Jane Doe 8, notified HR, naming the woman specifically and saying she "lives in fear of her job."
Greg Stevens, CCS chief administration officer and the person who led the investigation into Pitcher starting this January, says someone in HR followed up with the co-worker. No investigation was launched. Stevens says he "does not recall" anyone giving that information to Gullickson.
Then in December 2017, the woman and five female colleagues wrote an anonymous letter detailing allegations against Pitcher. Still, Stevens says, the college couldn't investigate because of a policy of not investigating anonymous complaints.
In January, an investigation was finally triggered when the women hired an attorney, Nick Kovarik, to put his name on the letter. No longer an anonymous complaint, an investigation was launched, though Pitcher continued in his job before he resigned at the end of February.
The investigation, finished in March, found that Pitcher violated policies on relationships with co-workers and acceptable use of state resources. But with no physical evidence to support the allegations made by the women who accused Pitcher of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, Stevens concluded Jane Doe 1's claims could not be substantiated.
It's why the woman says she didn't report what happened immediately after the incidents in 2013 and 2014 in the first place.
"I knew they wouldn't believe me," she tells the Inlander.
She says she eventually reported her experience because of the #MeToo movement and because she saw how other women around her were similarly being affected by Pitcher's behavior.
"The district knew the whole time and didn't do a damn thing, and then they blamed the victim," she says.
BREAKING THE SILENCE
Johnson, the chancellor who oversees both SFCC and SCC, says she didn't hear about any allegations until December 2017. Gullickson, Johnson says, had autonomy as president of SFCC to make personnel decisions.
The policy, at least as far back as two decades, has always been not to investigate anonymous complaints. When asked why the information containing women's names in 2015 and in 2016 did not trigger investigations even though it contained names, Stevens says it's because they were not "complaints," but rather "inquiries."
When Johnson did see the anonymous complaint, however, she sent a letter to all employees reminding them of the policies and encouraging them to report.
"And we feel like that was successful," Johnson says, noting a formal complaint was filed a month later.
Two witnesses of Pitcher's alleged harassment tell the Inlander they didn't speak out because they feared retaliation and public embarrassment.
"We don't want what happened to us or to our friends to be publicized. And the reason people wait for years and years and years is because it's so stressful and it's so devastating," one witness tells the Inlander.
Johnson says it can be difficult to strike a balance between encouraging victims of harassment to report and protecting them from public embarrassment.
"We want to make sure the complainants are free to come forward and not afraid or intimidated or shamed by the public," Johnson says.
The women hired an attorney, Kovarik, who filed an injunction request that a Spokane judge granted last week barring the names and identifiers of 10 of his clients from being disclosed to the Inlander, Spokesman-Review or KXLY. He argued, and Judge Annette Plese agreed, that it would create a "chilling effect" for other victims who want to speak out. (Typically, none of the media outlets name victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault without permission.)
But it's unusual for such information to be blocked from the public. The day the news broke that Pitcher resigned from the college, for instance, the Inlander received records regarding a separate situation regarding alleged sexual harassment against a CCS employee in 2016 — with names included.
The alleged victims in Pitcher's case still say they fear retaliation and public shame for speaking out. Jane Doe 2, the woman who kept a log of Pitcher's behavior, wrote that a "culture of fear" was developed at SFCC, and she hopes it can be repaired.
"Imagine an SFCC where women could focus on our jobs rather than trying to keep one another safe from harassment," she wrote. "We demand better." ♦