Unwanted Contact---Drawing the line between safety and education.
Collaborative Story by Tori Thoele and Wesley Baucom
“Work Together?” An Unsolicited Request, by Tori Thoele
A notification on Outlook started it all. Gaby Dorris, a current student at UMSL, looked down at her phone and noticed she had received an email. The subject line read, “Work Together?” It was from a man she didn’t know, but he was asking her to study together. While he too was an UMSL student, the email made her wary and uncomfortable. Why would a man whom she didn’t know try to contact her? Gaby then asked if they had any classes together and he replied no, he was an Information Systems major. Gaby ended the exchange. She told him she appreciated the offer, but declined to study together seeing that she was majoring in education and she wasn’t sure how it would be beneficial. This email weighed on her mind, and Gaby decided to get her friend’s advice on this unsolicited email from a male student. With just a screenshot of their exchange that included the male student's name, their Snapchat group chat blew up. It was confirmed that the male student who contacted Gaby, Michael Polt, was a sex offender.
After discovering Polt's charge of first-degree child molestation from 2016 and finding out that he contacted other women through UMSL's Outlook, Gaby decided to make a post on Facebook to warn other female students of Polt’s unwanted emails. The emails themselves look innocent enough, but they were unsolicited and made the female students uncomfortable. Here was a man they did not know, and yet he was asking them to study. Unwanted messaging or emailing made them nervous about their privacy and safety. Gaby’s thread of screenshots of her and Polt’s emails went viral overnight; they were shared over 200 times. In the discussion of the thread it was noted that if you are an UMSL student or staff member, you have access to everyone’s phone numbers and emails even if you never had a class with someone or shared a teacher. “We need to protect our students. We need to look out for each other and I’m glad I could bring attention to this issue,” stated Gaby. Eventually, word started to get out about Polt. What were his motivations? Other women started to notice and came together to acknowledge that they too were receiving unwanted messages from him, mainly through email. Gaby and the other students reported Polt’s behavior to UMSL’s Title IX office.
Gaby continued to receive an outpouring of Facebook messages from girls who Polt has contacted. With screenshots she received from other women and her own personal screenshots of unwanted emails from Polt, Gaby gave all of her documentation to Title IX. In an email reply from Jessica Swederske, Deputy Title IX Coordinator and Equity Officer, about the issue Gaby was informed that, “in order to move forward with an investigation, I would need anyone willing to participate to submit a formal complaint to Dana Beteet Daniels. This complaint should include the accused party’s name, date of the alleged incident, and a description of the incident and why it made you uncomfortable.” Even though UMSL can move forward without the complainants permission if they felt it was warranted, the email response also stated that if there are not enough complaints who cooperate with UMSL, the investigation cannot move forward.
On July 30th, 2020, Alivia Hall, at the time an UMSL student, was also contacted by Polt. In a similar manner that Gaby was contacted, Alivia received an email over Outlook from Polt, but already knew who he was. Alivia was a member of a sorority and on the Panhellenic Executive Board, and she knew about Polt because women in her sorority had been contacted by him too. In her response to Polt’s unwanted email, Alivia asked him if he was a sex offender. Polt replied and went into detail about the molestation conviction he has and claims he didn’t know the victim was underage. He also claimed that he was only trying to be nice. In her response Alivia stated: “I don’t want you to be nice to me. I didn’t ask, nor will I ever.” She also told Polt, “You have made many women I know uncomfortable and I’m tired of seeing it.” A third woman, Shannon Goresch, is yet another woman that Polt sent an unwanted email to. Shannon said this in regard to the email she received from Polt: “I did not answer the email and I’m hoping I do not hear from him again. I also have no classes with the guy who sent the email so that was an automatic red flag.”
Policies: Where’s the Line Between Right and Wrong? by Wesley Baucom
The real question regarding these incidents is, why is this happening? Why is Michael, a person who has committed a previous sexual assault crime, allowed to attend school when there have been many reports of unwanted communication? Gaby speaking out through her threads on social media has brought greater awareness. However, the question still remains, why does this happen and what will be done?
Polt’s presence at UMSL as a registered sex offender is allowed because UMSL’s admissions policy cannot discriminate based on a previous criminal record. A statement from Alan Byrd, right before he resigned as Director of Admissions, confirmed this. “There are no hurdles for prospective students with criminal records in the college admission process at public institutions. Our admission decisions are based solely on a student’s academic record,” Byrd said. “We have quite a few students enrolled at UMSL with criminal records.” In Polt’s case, he’s allowed to come to school, but according to Title IX offices, whether or not he’s allowed to come to the university can only change when disciplinary action was taken at a previous school.
We asked the Title IX offices about our concerns. In regards to admissions, Title IX Coordinator Dana Beteet Daniels explained.“When a student discloses prior behavioral issues at their previous institution, the Office of Admissions informs Title IX/Equity and Student Affairs so that we can contact the transferring institution to learn more about the offense in order to make an informed admission decision.” With this, it seems like Michael has nothing to hide, as he’s had no prior offenses at other schools. We’ve talked with at least three women receiving unsolicited contact who’ve felt uncomfortable by his advances, and more than ten who would like to remain anonymous.
With this many people alleging that Polt contacted them, how does the Title IX office handle such cases? “UMSL takes all allegations of gender discrimination, which includes sexual harassment or misconduct, seriously. Any report and request for investigation received by the Title IX Office is thoroughly investigated by a trained investigator,” Daniels said. In response to our questions, they gave us a lot of information on their policy available on their website, but not anything substantial in Polt’s case due to it being an ongoing investigation.
People with prior criminal records are treated no differently than other students when reports are made against them. According to Daniels, “The Title IX Office will not place emphasis on a case based on allegations of a prior offense. The Department of Education requires institutions to apply the presumption that the respondent is not responsible during the investigative process.” Daniels also said that people on the sex offender registry must be in contact with UMSL PD: “Every student on the sex offender registry is required by Missouri law to register with Campus Police each semester. After registering with Campus Police, Student Affairs meets with the student to discuss campus expectations and restrictions due to being on the registry.” It doesn’t stop there, not only does UMSL PD and Student Affairs get involved, but Title IX also works closely with UMSL PD when a case is brought up. “The Title IX Office works closely with the UMSL Police Department regarding any personal concerns expressed by a Complainant.” Considering the fact that Polt must also register with UMSL PD and Title IX, there had to be some kind of conversation between the administrators if these reports from victims are true.
UMSL’s responses so far haven’t provided a lot of new information. Understandably Title IX cannot talk about specific cases, saying “Due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) - a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records colleges and universities - I am unable to comment on individual students.” There have been other questions though. Like, has this sort of thing happened before? How can students feel safe? These questions have been met with the same answer: “UMSL takes all allegations of gender discrimination, which includes sexual harassment or misconduct, seriously.”
We contacted UMSL PD for an official statement. We got in touch with Officer Dustin Smith regarding their investigative process. “Any reports are investigated by the officer assigned to the call. All reported crimes are considered to have taken place when, and how the victim has reported.” At this point, we asked about specifics into this case, but Officer Smith was unable to respond to our questions. “I cannot comment on any ongoing investigations or open reports.” he said. Regarding the case of unwanted contact, it’s considered to be an “ongoing investigation,” so any response that UMSL PD gives has to reflect that in order to maintain the integrity of their investigation. So any answers about the investigation have yet to be concluded.
This didn’t stop us from seeking help from the police though. We talked with Detective Derrick D. Fort Sr., who is a Sex Offender Registration & Enforcement officer for the St. Louis County Police Department. When we get down to specifics in Polt’s case, he stresses that UMSL is responsible for his enrollment and current attendance. “With the incidents with the gentleman, if he’s an offender, generally [the county] gets a call from the school police during enrollment to inquire if they’re compliant. If there’s an issue, they should be able to address that with him.”
Whether or not he’s allowed to stay at school, according to Detective Fort, it’s entirely up to UMSL. “That’s an administrative decision on the school’s part. If there’s something criminal it goes to UMSL PD to deal with.” What about his mode of contact? By looking up students’ information through Outlook, Polt is taking advantage of personal information of the students. According to Detective Fort: “As far as all the contact that he’s doing, the victims may just have to go to the department and talk to someone.” As this is still an ongoing investigation, and Polt has still been able to attend school despite the amount of people who’ve felt uncomfortable by his advances, we asked where can people turn to? “I would speak with a supervisor,” Detective Fort said, “Let them know what’s going on and what concerns they have, and if there’s more than one person, there’s power in numbers.”
Despite the amount of people we’ve reached out to, it’s important to talk about the person at hand, Polt himself. We’ve reached out to him, and he’s vocal in his defense for his actions. “As long as offenders like, myself and others, are following the laws and whatnot we are in no violation of anything, attending the university or living in campus housing,” Polt said. For Polt, he sees the allegations against him to be unwarranted. “Unlike what the media, and other sources lead people to believe, we [convicted offenders] are literally just people trying to live our lives. We clearly made a mistake in the past, but with an education we are trying to move forward,” Polt said.
Polt mentions how some students may get unwanted contact from other people “...since all you need is someone's first and last name to find their email/phone number via Outlook email.” Even though he may have contacted people through this method, it doesn’t explain why he chose those people in particular. When asked, Polt explained “There was no ‘choosing’ so to speak. That word to me implies they are victims of something. I do not believe they are victims of anything, at least not from me.” According to Polt, he wanted to reach out to people who could help him in classes he struggled with, and for no reason other than that. “Since my biggest struggle is calculus," he explained. "I tried finding people who had a major that might've required them to take higher level math courses, such as an engineering or nursing major. Those people likely took, and passed, a course I'm having trouble with. As such, there was no relationship prior to reaching out. Just one student looking to work with another.”
His intentions seem harmless, but the women that he’s contacted, such as Shannon or Alivia, couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable because it was a random request. On top of this, the long threads of comments attached to Gaby’s Facebook post is an indicator for the amount of women he’s contacted. This begs the question, with all of these allegations, what is Polt doing differently now to deter him from his actions in the past? He explained, “I am generally a better decision maker even though this particular incident may indicate otherwise. I try to make it clear what my intentions are when dealing with persons I don't already know. This is why I believe the messages aren’t the issue with these people, but my status with the state is.”
Now we’re at a crossroads. Polt is right, technically he’s not breaking the law. However, how can we move forward with the concerns that the women at UMSL have? They simply don’t feel safe, and on the other hand, we have an individual who claims that his contact was strictly scholarly and is trying to move on from the things in his past. In Polt’s words: “You be the judge. Is this more about my contacting individuals, or is this more about the title that is associated with me that causes people to immediately assume that I am one of the devils' very own creations?” He may still be behaving within the context of the law, but when people feel uncomfortable by random contact with Polt and have expressed as much, does that mean that their concerns are unwarranted just because there’s nothing illegal in his actions?
The Current advises anyone who has encountered any interactions that make you feel uncomfortable, to forward all of their concerns to Dana Beteet Daniels, Director of the Title IX Offices at UMSL, whose email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. We also urge you to contact UMSL PD and other officials at the Title IX offices if you have any questions or concerns. Also, if you don’t want your personal information on your Outlook email, log into your MyView and go into the “self service” section. In the self-service menu there is another sub-menu called: “Campus Personal Information.” In this subsection, you’ll see an option for “FERPA Restrictions”, once you're in here, click the box that says: “FERPA-Restrict Release of Personal Information”, and all of your personal information will be removed from your email within twenty-four hours.