Theater Arts student and LGBTF participant Michael Stroud was banned from campus for one year by West Windsor Municipal Court Judge Mary S. Brennan, on April 27. The ban is in response to charges filed by Security Officer Joseph Pierleonardi against Stroud for harassment.
Although some of the facts remain unclear it is certain that on February 26, a day the school was closed for snow, Stroud came to campus to use the library’s computer lab. He was surprised to find that the campus was closed. In an interview with The VOICE Stroud said that he was followed by a pair of unidentified security officers and that one of them called him a “faggot.”
Stroud, apparently incensed by the remarks and upset over the way security officers had ended the LGBTF students’ kiss-in event on February 18 (see “Security and LGBTF clash over kiss-in” in The VOICE’s online archives) placed a series of phone calls to Mercer’s security office, which Pierleonardi, who fielded the calls, describes as “threatening.”
“I don’t remember exactly, but [Stroud] said ‘homosexual’ and that security didn’t like the gays and lesbians and that security liked choking them. He said ‘you’re going to pay for what you did,’” said Pierleonardi. Pierleonardi added that it was Stroud’s tone and the anger with which he made the statements that alarmed him.
“It’s the first time I’ve been ever threatened in 26 years [at Mercer]. And then I called West Windsor [Police Department] and pressed charges.” Pierleonardi says he pressed the charges on his own behalf, and not on behalf of the college.
Upon being notified of the charges, Stroud then approached Chief Raimondi hoping to remedy the situation outside of the court. Chief of Security John Raimondi, feeling that Pierleonardi bore the full brunt of Stroud’s alleged statements, told Stroud to apologize to Pierleonardi.
“It just was very offensive to Joe [Pierleonardi],” Raimondi said, adding that “I was just taking it afterwards.”
The result of these conversations between Stroud and Mercer security officers was a letter signed by Joseph Pierleonardi saying that Pierleonardi would “accept Michael Stroud’s apology” if Stroud wrote “a letter of apology to the officers involved at the student center and have this letter published in The College VOICE showing [his] true positive feelings in this matter…write [Pierleonardi] a personal letter of apology…most importantly, [Stroud] make an appointment to see and talk to the college counselor, Valerie Klein Brooks [sic] about your actions.” The letter goes on to say that “if the above are completed, I will drop all the charges against you filed with the WWPD court.”
After receiving the letter, Stroud sought out help on campus, talking to numerous people about his situation including school counselor Valerie Brooks-Klein, and Professor Alex DeFazio the adviser to the LGBTF and an adjunct Theater Arts professor, among others. According to eyewitness accounts, Stroud appeared shaken by the letter and said he wished to put the matter behind him but did not know how to do so.
Later, following more conversations between Stroud and Mercer Security, the details of which are unclear, allegedly Pierleonardi verbally amended his written statement adding that he’d do everything in his power to have the charges dismissed but that he could not completely control the outcome of the court proceedings.
Also, as it is a general rule that publications’ editors, and not their consumers, determine their content, Pierleonardi later rescinded the stipulation that Stroud publish a letter of apology in the College VOICE.
On March 24, Stroud appeared at municipal court for the first time. He applied for a public defender and the matter was adjourned until April 28.
A few weeks later, in mid-April, Stroud apparently left the state and went to visit friends in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida leaving his classes unfinished.
On April 28 Stroud returned to New Jersey and appeared before municipal court Judge Brennan. At the courthouse were Security Officer Pierleonardi and Chief Raimondi, who arrived in a marked Mercer SUV wearing their security uniforms.
Stroud was represented by public defender Robin Echevarria. During the court appearance no testimony was given, no formal charges were read, and no plea was entered, and the matter was rescheduled for April 27, 2011.
The West Windsor Municipal Court Clerk’s office says that the matter has been placed on administrative hold, and that, technically, no ruling has actually been entered. Judge Brennan said that the charges will be dropped and will not go on Stroud’s criminal record provided he does not come on campus for one year and takes eight anger management classes.
Mark H. Jaffe, an attorney in Princeton for 23 years described the court’s remedy as a common and completely legal one. “This is a negotiated plea…the defendant, after talking to his legal counsel, chose to accept the offer that would ultimately result in the matter being dismissed.” Jaffe added that “there’s no guilty plea, but inherently there’s some responsibility.”
However, Stroud, in a text message sent to The VOICE just days after Judge Brennan’s decision, said, “my lawyer never asked me my side of the story. I never saw the charges or what was said. The lawyer never spoke with me. They spoke with the security for 20 minutes. I was denied basic constitutional rights.”
In response to Stroud’s allegations, Echevarria said “I’m [in court] for how ever long I need to be. Ask anybody. I’m not one of those lawyers that tries to do things in a hurry. If he felt that he didn’t have enough time to talk to me that’s his problem, not my problem.”
According the Director of College Safety Bryon Marshall, Pierleonardi acted on his own in choosing the local police to remedy the situation. However, the exact role of the college remains unclear, with Marshall calling it a “gray area,” because the incident happened while Pierleonardi was on the job.Marshall says that is the reason that Pierleonardi and Raimondi were allowed to take the Mercer SUV to the courthouse, and to be paid while there.
Jose Fernandez, Executive Director for Compliance and Human Resources at Mercer said, “[Pierleonardi] put something forward, and he is a college employee, so people did not know [if] this [was] coming from the college or [if it was] coming from [him]. It confused people. So I told him next time, just to talk to us so that we’re all on the same page…Obviously [Stroud] did not really know if [the legal action] was coming from him, or the college.”
When asked if the matter would have been handled differently if administration had been “on the same page” sooner, Fernandez said, “I don’t know, because it never happened…maybe, maybe not.” Fernandez added that “there’s no flow chart, no policy,” for handling cases like these.
When asked if he knew of a time when a student’s misbehavior has lead a Mercer employee to take the matter to the police rather than following the school’s internal judicial process, Dean of Liberal Arts, Robin Schore, said that in his 38 year history at the college he could not remember such a thing occurring.
“There’s usually some kind of hearing before somebody is declared persona non grata,” said Schore. “I’m not aware of [criminal charges being filed] before.”
Schore added that “students have been put off campus for being a danger to themselves or other people. [This has happened to] unstable people, criminals…If people went to jail for calling other people names, there’d be no one on the outside.”
Executive Dean of Student Affairs L. Diane Campbell said that “if a student does something in which they break the law….the discipline procedure suspends at that point.”
Campbell added that, while she does not remember the details, a student was brought up on criminal charges for assaulting another student here at Mercer about two years ago.
0n page 66 of Mercer’s student handbook it says “violations of local ordinances, federal or state laws, where said violation poses a substantial threat to the safety and or welfare of campus community members may subject the student to disciplinary proceedings.”
According to LGBTF Public Relations Officer Melissa Wingo, part of the problem may have been that Stroud, feeling attacked by the use of the word “faggot”, may not have know how to air his grievance. In fact, in a similar situation the LGBTF felt upset by security’s behavior towards them. They felt that security made the kiss-in event disruptive and tried to prevent the LGBTF from exercising their freedom of expression and freedom of speech, a position that was supported by the ACLU who weighed in on the LGBTF’s behalf.
The first person Stroud might have talked to is campus anti-harassment officer and English professor Amy Vondrak. Vondrak says that while the training she received in 2006 was extensive, the campus anti-harassment officer training guide has “no specific procedure to address student complaints with staff.” Adding to the confusion, says Vondrak, is the fact that there is an entirely separate procedure for filing grievances with Dean Campbell’s office, and that “there was not any mention of that overlap. I’m also unaware of a process for students to file a grievance with Dean Campbell.”
Wingo said of the grievance filing process “now that the grievance officers are aware of what they have to do on their end, its pretty simple. But it was hard just to get a grievance counselor who knew what was going on and knew how to file the paperwork properly. A lot of them were either not around, or had never received a grievance complaint before…It took a couple weeks before we could actually file a grievance…The policy manual was very unclear [about the procedure], and when we finally did figure it out, some of the people we were supposed to talk to were people who we already felt had been unsupportive.”
What happens next for Michael Stroud is not clear. Bryon Marshall says that the college will find a way for him to finish his classes and have his disciplinary hearing, despite the court’s ban. “Chief Raimondi said that it “ended amicably. We helped him out on [the charges]. Actually we gave him a break. We were being congenial about the whole thing.” At this point Stroud is unwilling to return to campus, saying that the experience is taxing his health, “I’m depressed and I can’t keep reliving this over and over. I’m the victim here and I need to move on for my health.”