Open Letter

Screenshot of openlettertodeanperri.com

Openlettertodeanperri.com is exactly what it appears to be: an open letter to Michael Perri, the dean of UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions.

But 100 pages of two UF sexual assault cases within Perri’s college lie in another tab, and 31-year-old Andrew Cistola, a second-year UF masters and first-year doctoral student in public health, isn’t finished collecting records.

UF’s Title IX office has investigated a cluster of sexual assault cases from the college within the past two years, and records show that some cases weren’t handled correctly by faculty, Cistola said.

This makes Cistola “extremely concerned” for the safety of students, he wrote in a letter on the site he created, which is why on Dec. 23 he requested that Perri release public documentation of the cases by Jan. 6.

Cistola told The Alligator he made the website to dispel rumors about the cases spreading through the halls of the college. He also said he doesn’t want any sexual predators attached to the research projects he has to complete at UF because it could damage his career.

“I wanted to make sure that students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members can have access to public information so they can make their own decisions about their safety – about who they want to work with,” Cistola told The Alligator in an interview.

Perri did not follow through with the request. When The Alligator pressed him on why, he referred a reporter to UF spokesperson Steve Orlando.

“We are confident that the university’s Title IX office handled these cases properly,” Orlando wrote in a statement.

When Cistola asked Perri for documentation of the cases and to publicly release these related documents, Perri instead responded by making a public records request for Cistola to find the information he was looking for.

Cistola then published Perri’s response to the website Monday, in which Perri also forwarded Cistola to Russell Froman, UF’s Title IX director. Froman declined to comment.

“I appreciate your concern for the welfare of the College and its students. I know that Dr. Froman will do his best to address your concerns while respecting the confidentiality required in these matters,” Perri wrote to Cistola in an email.

The front page of openlettertodeanperri.com now shows Cistola’s public response to Perri. Cistola wrote that Perri did not comply with his original demands and expects the reports to be sent in by Feb. 1.

“Tell us a story. Tell us what’s going on.The reason why I felt it was so important is because we had no idea what was going on,” Cistola told The Alligator.

“Release these documents, please”: what’s in the letter

Cistola wrote about three cases in his initial letter posted on the website that sparked his concerns.

The first is the case of Andrew Lotto, a former professor in the college that Perri let resign after the university conducted an investigation that found multiple incidents of sexual harassment gainst female students and faculty dating back more than two years.

The second case includes two related investigations from the same college concerning Sheena Pryce Fegumps and Christy Ewing, two professors who are accused of sexually harassing a male professor within the same college, Mark Hart. The 100 pages of records on Cistola’s website includes multiple incidents from 2017 to 2019.

Hart declined to comment for this article.

Hart’s case files also state that Cindy Prins, the college’s assistant dean for educational affairs, and Amy Blue, the college’s associate dean for educational affairs, broke Title IX guidelines by not reporting Hart’s case immediately.

“Any employee with supervisory responsibility, as well as faculty who have knowledge of sexual harassment, is required to promptly report the matter directly to the Title IX Coordinator and may be disciplined for failing to do so,” the UF employee handbook reads.

When asked for comment, Prins and Blue forwarded a reporter to Orlando, who declined to comment on whether or not they were disciplined or if Pryce Fegumps and Ewing are still employed at UF.

The Alligator also reached out to Pryce Fegumps and Ewing, but they did not respond before publication.

However, the college’s website lists all four in their same positions. Its last update was on Jan. 8.

Cistola alleges that a third case is still underway and involves workplace discrimination against females and verbal harassment by the same male professor over the last several years, Cistola wrote in his letter. The report is not on the website and The Alligator could not individually confirm its existence.

Cistola said he has worked with Emma Crowley, a 24-year-old UF master’s student in public health and sexual assault survivor, to make sure he treats the subject with care on his website.

Crowley said her sexual assault case was ignored by the Title IX office at her undergraduate institution, which she did not wish to name. This is why she’s passionate about making sure UF practices transparency in its cases.

“We don’t want to seem aggressive,” Crowley said. “That’s not our intention. And that’s why Andrew wrote this letter almost as an invitation, saying, ‘Release these documents, please, so we can get a better understanding of what we’re dealing with.’”

But Crowley and Cistola aren’t the only ones concerned with transparency in the department.

“I don’t know who to trust,”: students react to the website

In November, Alejandra Salemi, a 22-year-old second-year public health masters student, collected about 15 letters from students in support of Hart during his sexual harassment case.

Hart was demoted from his former positions as the college’s director of online learning and the director of the college’s doctoral and masters programs in public health for the social behavioral sciences concentration after an argument with college officials related to his case, and his students were feeling the loss, Salemi said.

He helped everyone find job and research opportunities and acted as a mentor to his students. She added that she lost all her respect for the college.

“I don’t know who to trust,” she said. “I’m worried about graduating on time. I don’t know who to go to for my complaints and my concerns.”

Salemi said she supports Cistola’s website because it calls the college administration out for letting Lotto resign instead of firing him and allowing two deans to not report Hart’s case for years.

“We’re showing them that we are not going to put up with their bull****,” she said. “That website — and us students — who are vocal about it is just only reinforcing that we’re here to stay and fight.”

And other students are willing to speak out as well. 

Everything was thrilling and new when Valentina Fandino, a 22-year-old first-year UF master’s student, started studying public health with a concentration in social and behavioral sciences. Professors had open door policies, and you could talk to anyone, anytime.

But the hallways are quiet now, with almost every door shut.

“It feels like we’re being closed out. I definitely see the silence,” she said.

Fandino also lost Hart as her adviser without warning when he was demoted, which she said has been interruptive to her research.

The fact that Hart’s case wasn’t properly reported makes Fandino concerned for students

“How many students have walked through those doors, experienced sexual harassment, reported it and nothing was ever done?” she said. “It’s very important to have those people who you can come and talk to when people will believe you and listen to you. And just the thought of our students and our staff to not be able to have that is terrifying.”

Fandino hopes the college will publish all the cases to make sure students know about what’s going on and represent public health the way it should be.

“No issue is black and white, but we really just need to be honest about where we stand and what we’re doing to improve things if we actually want to be a top-five public university,” she said.

Contact Hope Dean at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @hope_m_dean.