“You can’t hide behind that Bible,” Paula Penson told Shorter University President Donald Dowless during a meeting Nov. 8, the day the man she has accused of sexual and work harassment against her resigned. “The Bible’s not going to protect you just because you’re walking around holding it.
“You’ve got to live by it,” said Penson, the director of campus safety at Shorter. “You can’t just hold it.”
Penson described an intense environment filled with heated exchanges between her and Dowless inside his office. The meeting came a day after news of her claims made headlines following the release of a Rome police report detailing her accusations against Corey Humphries, the former vice president of student affairs and her direct supervisor.
There was a suspicion in her mind as to why Dowless had wanted to speak with her — it was because she had gone forward with what he and the upper administration had wanted to keep under wraps, amidst a culture where “everybody turns a blind eye,” she said.
“He was so hostile and very mad at me,” she said. “He was shaking with that police report. He was in a regular chair that didn’t even rock. He was rocking his chair back on the back (legs).”
Also in the office were Provost Donald L. Martin, CFO and Vice President of Finance Susan Zeird, and an assistant taking notes. Neither Martin nor Zeird would look her in the eye and they both looked nervous, Penson said.
“I’ve never seen him like this,” the eight-year employee of Shorter said of Dowless, who she previously had a great relationship with, working closely together. “He said I need to talk to you about this police report you made.”
Penson matched Dowless’ temper with a side of her they’d never seen, she said.
“I don’t never get that mad, but don’t call me a liar, first of all,” she continued.
Dowless had pressed Penson about a statement in the police report concerning her feelings of being unsafe and fearful on campus due to the possibility of Humphries retaliating against her, she said.
“He was trying to say that I lied, that I gave a false report,” she said. “And it was the statement that I felt fearful on campus. He wouldn’t read the word … that he could ‘possibly’ hurt me.”
Omitted from Dowless’ re-reading of the report was the word “possibly,” prompting her to say that she didn’t tell police what he was stating she did.
“You don’t know what you told the police?” Penson said Dowless asked her, as he looked at the assistant to indicate it needed to be recorded.
Read it word for word, she told him. Then she confirmed her statement, telling the assistant to write that down.
“Do you know how it makes me feel to read this in the paper that you’re scared and you’re making the campus sound like it’s unsafe,” Penson recalled Dowless telling her.
As Dowless focused on how the school’s reputation could be tarnished, Penson couldn’t get so much as an acknowledgement as the victim in the case, she said.
“I’m the victim here, you haven’t even acknowledged me as the victim. And he just kept saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about that,’” she said. “He was so mad because he doesn’t want things in the public. That’s why you don’t hear anything. …. Don’t say a word or you’re next.”
After Penson challenged the others in the room to speak up and acknowledge her, Dowless promptly ended the meeting, but he had left out an important point, the reason why Penson was actually called in. Martin asked Dowless if he was going to tell Penson.
“Dowless just looked so dumbfounded,” Penson said, as he went in to tell her, “'Humphries has resigned and let’s move forward.'"
“And that was it,” she said. “That’s how I found out.”
To this day, Penson said the university has failed to reach out to her with her next step as a victim — no counseling opportunities or victim resources, no open door for reaching out.
“They’ve not even given me a piece of paper saying how my Title IX rights are as a victim. Actually they’ve victimized me,” she said. “They still don’t know this whole thing because they’ve not even asked me.”
In October, Penson filed verbal and written complaints, concerning the alleged harassment which had gone on since late July, with Shorter’s human resources department. She said she was Humphries' go-to person, and it was a joke among her co-workers that she was at his beck and call.
The two had also worked out together, up until the day she said he put his hands up between her legs in the university’s gym. She immediately told him to stop and left.
Penson demanded a strictly professional relationship with Humphries after the alleged incident, but he continued to verbally harass her, questioning why things couldn’t return to “normal,” she said. She became worried for her safety following her written complaint, she said, as Humphries appeared to be distraught.
Rome police have turned the investigation over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. An internal investigation is ongoing, but Penson believes it is purposefully being prolonged to build a case against her in retaliation.
“I’m betrayed and I’m sickened by it,” she said. “I’m invisible and they’re just blind. I mean everybody’s walking with blinders.
“It’s like I don’t wanna hear it. I don’t wanna see you. You’re invisible, go away,” she said. “Sweep it under the rug, get rid of it, it’s gone.”
Editor’s note: This is the first report in an ongoing series concerning Shorter University and one of its employee’s claims of sexual and work harassment by her former direct supervisor. Click on the pdf below to review Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.