Co-Chairs of Dawson theatre department resign over harassment response

Dawson College

The Co-Chairs of the Dawson Professional Theatre program have resigned their positions as chairs of the department over administration inaction to harassment complaints.

In the winter of 2017, several students came forward on social media with allegations against theatre professor Winston Sutton. The complaints ranged from harassment to bullying and emotional abuse.  

The college launched an internal investigation where over 20 former students were interviewed and Sutton was suspended. As of spring 2018, students and teachers tell CJAD 800 that Sutton has been quietly reinstated. 

"The fact that we never got an official response doesn't feel respectful," says a former Dawson student who filed a complaint. "It took a lot of courage to come forward and to not get an official response just doesn't feel like they took us seriously."

Recently resigned co-chair of the department Kimberley Barfuss says in her resignation letter that staff voted on a plan to "allow for reflection and analysis of the current situation but also to ensure a healthy and safe work environment for both its current students and faculty."

"What I can say is as a department we tried to do our best to be accountable, responsible, reflect and take action in the best interests of our students and the College intervened," she says.

The college overruled the proposed staffing plan, putting forth a plan for 2018-2019 year that was contrary to what the majority of teachers approved.

"Their intervention and subsequent decision to undo much of what the department put forth is what I absolutely do not agree with, cannot support, and will not be seen as condoning and so have resigned in protest," says Barfuss.

Kimberley Barfuss and Carolyn Guillet both resigned their positions as chairs of the department. Barfuss says earlier in April another Theatre Department Co-Chair also resigned 

Dawson College Communications Coordinator Donna Varrica says while much of the case is confidential, the school respected internal policies regarding their investigation.

"You know regardless of how emotional some issues become we have to follow the letter of the law and within that the collective agreements and just all the mechanisms that are in place to safeguard everyone," said Varrica. "12 people can say 'I don't want that person to work here' if that person has every right to work here then that would be overruled based on legal advice, based on collective agreements, based on labor laws."

Varrica says none of the complainants were notified about the conclusion of the investigation because they are not currently enrolled, and the Dawson harassment policy no longer applies to them. 

She says the College's sexual harassment policy will also be revisited.

Sutton said he could not comment in December of 2017 due to the internal investigation, and has not responded to a recent request for comment from CJAD 800. However, in an internal email to students of the theatre department in January, 2018, Sutton denies the allegations and says "…I still don't know what I'm doing that is abusive or offensive to any of you" and asks students to tell him if anything he does makes them feel uneasy. 

In the same email he implies there may be a racial bias informing the complaints.

"To create lies this grave is devious and defamatory and is a degradation of me as a teacher, a person and a Black man," he wrote. "However, it's unfortunate that such allegations will always gain traction among those, ready to believe such sleaze, when attributed to people who look like me."

The co-chairs that resigned will keep their teaching positions at Dawson, and will be required to continue working alongside Sutton.

"This has been extremely difficult. As an alumnus of the Theatre Program myself and someone who taught many of those that came forward with complaints, I am heart broken," says Barfuss. "As someone who cares deeply about the Program and each and every one of our students I am outraged. And as someone who has fought to do right by both the College and the Dept. over the last 6 months, I am disillusioned and devastated by the final outcome." 

Several students and teachers told CJAD 800 that they are disappointed in the response of the college, which they feel has been carried out without accountability to former, future, and current students, staff, or the public.