WTOC Investigates: Three women accuse SSU police chief of sexual misconduct

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Three women, including two female Savannah State University police officers, accuse university police Chief James Barnwell of sexual misconduct.

According to attorneys representing the women, they allege sexual harassment and sexual assault by Barnwell.

"We represent an individual in connection with allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault - and this is on Savannah State University's campus - against the chief of police," Felicia Spears, an attorney with Ifill Law Group, told WTOC exclusively.

Abda Quillian, an attorney with Tate Law Group representing the two female officers, spoke only with WTOC Monday and said her clients have similar complaints.

"These complaints allege very serious misconduct on the part of the chief of police at Savannah State," Quillian said. "They are of a sexual misconduct nature, sexual harassment."

Quillian said the officers have filed internal and federal complaints about the misconduct.

"They both have filed complaints," Quillian said. "One, which I would say is more of an internal complaint at the moment, being investigated through the Board of Regents of the University System. The other then has been filed externally with an outside federal agency, the EEOC. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission."

Communications staff with University System of Georgia did not return requests for comment Monday to confirm if it is investigating allegations filed against Savannah State University, its police department or Barnwell.

Quillian and Spears said the alleged misconduct started several years ago.

"I can say that they go back at least two years and continue until the time of the filing of them," Quillian said.

Spears said, "Those allegations, those go back about three years now. A lot of that, especially discrimination in the workplace, a lot of that can take time to build, and there are different incidents. So, that one goes back kind of far."

The university named Barnwell police chief in 2015. Officials put Barnwell on paid administrative leave on March 23 while the university conducts an internal investigation, according to a news release. University officials said Monday they could not comment about the misconduct allegations or state if these allegations led to the investigation or Barnwell's leave because it is a personnel matter.

Quillian and Spears said the alleged behavior doesn't seem to be a one-time issue.

"It does not appear to be that at all," Quillian said.

Both attorneys think current support for those who come forward with sexual misconduct allegations may have encouraged their clients to file complaints.

"I think so," Spears said. "It's been something we often see, and a lot of people are afraid to come forward, worrying about backlash or retaliation or anything like that. That's why we want to let people know that it's OK to come to us. Of course, we have the attorney-client privilege, and everything's confidential, so we just want people to be fearless and just come forward. We'll help them every step of the way."

Quillian said. "It may. It very well may because culturally now, there is a climate that this is not acceptable and that coming forward is not to be shunned or looked down upon or pushed under a rug. I think now, nationwide, it is recognized as a very serious problem that goes across multiple employment situations, including state, local governments or universities."

Quillian said the EEOC is currently investigating both of her clients' complaints, but if the agency is overburdened with complaints and cannot get to theirs quickly, attorneys can request a Right to Sue Letter.

"You have to get that right to sue letter from the EEOC prior to going to federal court and filing any sort of Title VII sexual harassment lawsuit," Quillian said.

Spears and Quillian said they hadn't filed any legal complaints as of Monday, but Quillian said they are likely coming.

"I envision that that's probably, it's where we're headed," Quillian said. "I'm not sure that there is a resolution prior to legal action being taken that would be appropriate. I think that's probably where we're going."

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