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Former student sues Shepherd for abuse

By Staff | Mar 3, 2017

Claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress and interference and breach of contract, a former student of Shepherd University is pursuing a civil action against both the university and a professor she claims used abusive and discriminatory behavior.

Shepherd University issued a statement acknowledging the dispute.

“The University understands that the former student seeks to make claims against the University,” Valerie Owens, executive director of university communications, said in the statement. “The university believes that all of the claims of the former student are unfounded. The university will address the matter in the court system.”

According to the former student, Marissa Leaper, the university offered a $10,000 settlement to drop all claims, but Leaper continues to pursue charges because she believes professor in question should be disciplined for her actions.

The civil action claims Dr. Dawne Burke, a professor at Shepherd, targeted Leaper and breached university contract by unnecessarily delaying her graduation.

Leaper was enrolled in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Shepherd University in fall 2014 when she took a class called Learning in Contexts taught by Burke.

Leaper said she had made good grades and met all necessary program requirements, but due to a negative evaluation from Burke, Leaper was barred from student teaching and unable to complete her program in a timely manner.

According to the civil action, Burke immediately disliked Leaper after the first day of class. Burke allegedly emailed colleagues asking if they had negative experiences with Leaper in the past.

Although Burke’s evaluation acknowledged Leaper routinely attended classes and produced course assignments according to criteria, she also said Leaper “rarely, if ever, initiated any opinion formation, dialogue or commentary with classmates unless she was directly prompted by the instructor. There is often a flattened affect with no smiling or direct eye contact.” For those reasons, Burke recommended Leaper not be admitted to the student teaching program.

When Leaper was denied entry to the program, she emailed multiple professors – including Burke – to find out why she was rejected.

In December 2014, Leaper emailed Burke to ask what date she submitted the evaluation and how the it could be addressed. Leaper allegedly sent similar emails to other faculty.

Leaper emailed Burke a second time in March 2015, and asked if Burke had been one of the professors to raise concerns about her ability to student teach.

Burke allegedly ignored both emails.

Leaper was reinstated to the program in January 2015, but the university refused to comment further on her initial rejection. Leaper filed a formal complaint regardless and the dean, Virginia Hicks, allegedly told Leaper she would never be given the answers she was looking for.

Leaper contacted the university president directly to file a complaint. Following the complaint, Leaper’s faculty adviser, Dr. James Tuttle, allegedly said he was one of three professors targeted in the complaint. As a result, Tuttle dismissed Leaper as his advisee.

“I am the victim,” Leaper wrote back. “I was the target. Dawne Burke had me for a total of one day of class before she singled me out from the rest of my classmates and decided that I was an outlier. She sought me out. She targeted me. If I am an outlier, Dawne Raines Burke is a bully.”

Three days after sending the email, Burke filed and was granted a temporary protective order against Leaper.

“Disgruntled former student removed from Shepherd University Teacher Education Program has targeted me for her demonstrated lack of standard proficiencies. After nearly a year, she continues to harass and defame me, both personally and professionally,” Burke wrote in the petition for a protective order. No other reason was given for requesting the order.

Leaper’s attorney, Christian Riddell, cross-examined Burke regarding the personal protection order under oath of law.

Riddell asked Burke if Leaper had ever threatened her or her family physically, and Burke answered she had not. Burke also said Leaper had not followed her around campus, approached or contacted her outside of school. In the interview, Burke said there was nothing other than the three emails to imply Leaper was a threat to Burke.

In November 2016, Leaper filed a lawsuit against Burke and the University.

“As it stands, Shepherd University has taken no disciplinary actions against Dawne Burke for harassing a student despite them knowing she maliciously and under false pretenses – was able to obtain a Personal Safety Order that banned me from campus and delayed my graduation,” Leaper said. “Dawne Burke could just as easily file another fraudulent Personal Safety Order against another innocent student and Shepherd will yet again turn a blind eye as they did with me.”

Burke could not be reached for comment.