Speaker of the Senate voted out after sexual harassment allegations


Danielle Wagner

Senate Clerk Nora Malone goes in to hug At-Large Senator Mary Elizabeth Thornton, following their speeches to the Student Senate about experiencing sexual harassment.

Please note that some aspects of this story discuss sensitive topics, like rape, sexual harassment, etc.

After sexual harassment allegations from two women and more than two hours of discussion and debate, the SGA Senate voted 29 to 2 to remove the Speaker of the Senate from their role at Wednesday night’s meeting.

Following the election of Kian Williams to speaker last week, two members of student government used the SGA public forum to speak about alleged sexual harassment they said they had experienced from Williams.

At last week’s Senate meeting, Mary Elizabeth Thornton, at-large senator, said she had been made uncomfortable by Williams. Following her claim, the Senate elected Williams into office by a narrow vote, 22-19.

At this week’s meeting, Thornton, as well as Senate Clerk Nora Malone, spoke about experiences they said they have had with Williams. Williams uses they/them pronouns.

“Last week, my experiences … were invalidated and ignored,” Thornton said. “Last week, this body chose to ignore the problem, condone the problem, and tell every person who has experienced harassment and intimidation in the workplace that their experiences were invalid.”

Thornton went on to say that in her time as student body vice president, she experienced “intimidation attempts” from Williams.

“Instances of these conversions that were met with the condescending tone and inability to finish the statement due to being blatantly interrupted, wandering eyes that made me feel ashamed of my own body … and simply just being ignored are examples of these type of experiences I’m talking about today,” Thornton said.

Following her statement, Malone spoke to the Senate to share about instances when she said she had felt unsafe due to Williams. Malone said that she and Williams used to be friends, but following Williams’ appointment to Speaker Pro-Tempore of the Senate, she noticed a tone shift.

“(Williams) started to excessively compliment me, telling me things like ‘You’re beautiful’ or ‘That dress looks really good on you,’” Malone said. “Their tone had shifted in a way that began to intimidate me, and the comments were frequent enough that I was made to be very uncomfortable.”

Malone said her discomfort mounted when she went into her office one day and saw Williams walking out of the room. The night before this, Malone said that Williams had given her a letter filled with compliments after a fine arts performance.

“When I got into my office, I saw that speaker Williams left me another letter and other unwanted gifts,” Malone said. “For further context, the door was locked, and Speaker Williams was not one of the people who had a key.”

Malone said the contents of both letters upset her.

“What alarmed me was when I read several lines (of the second letter) that talked about how much Speaker Williams loves me,” she said. “My personal space was invaded, and I felt violated.”

Malone said she felt “so physically unsafe” that she asked Gregory Vandyke Jr., at-large senator, to escort her out.

“Vandyke was kind enough to do that for me for several weeks after that incident,” she said.

Following Thornton and Malone’s speeches, Emanuyel Brown, at-large senator, voted to vacate Williams as speaker, which passed, following discussion.

During debate over whether to vacate Williams from their position, the former speaker said they do not have a proper defense after “just now learning about these allegations.”

“As a victim of sexual assault myself, I understand the vulnerability that it took to stand up here and talk,” Williams said. “I maintain my innocence of any and all allegations of Title IX or Student Conduct and Ethics violations presented here today.”

Williams said, while they were unaware of the allegations, rumors had been spread about them.

“My opponents spread rumors that I sexually assaulted somebody the night of my prom,” Williams said. “The fact of the matter is that that night, I was fed alcohol, drugged, and woke up to being raped.

“Every day, I carry that on my shoulders, letting the weight of it drag me down emotionally and physically. And now I have to relive that trauma in front of all of you, just to defend my character, my future, my position, my passions.”

Williams did not speak after this point.

Thornton and Malone’s speeches sparked nearly two hours of discussion, where many senators mentioned separate, personal experiences they had with sexual harassment or assault. 

Andrew Bobbitt, at-large senator, said that it is not the Senate’s position to weigh in on the issue of sexual harassment or assault.

“I would ask that all senators listen tonight to what everyone has to say, but I would strongly advise the Senate to remember that there are methods and procedures for addressing these claims, and I do not believe that this is the appropriate forum to do so,” Bobbitt said.

Vandyke disagreed with Bobbitt.

“It is our issue to weigh in on,” Vandyke said. “If we tolerate this; if we allow this, then what type of message is that sending to the rest of the students on this campus?”

Jay Thompson, at-large senator, said he knows Malone and Thornton’s confession “to be true” but said it is not the job of the Senate to assess accusations.

“I want to make clear that I denounce and do not condone any level of sexual harassment,” Thompson said. “Additionally, I do not tolerate not being able to claim your downfalls or your faults. It is not a crime to flirt.

“If it makes someone uncomfortable, up to a certain point, it is their job to voice that uncomfortability.”

Vandyke said he was disgusted by student representatives “contemplating if there’s enough evidence.”

“If we tolerate these disgusting acts that these people have courageously talked about today,” Vandyke said. “If we tolerate that, then we ask ourselves ‘What are we tolerating on Wichita State University campus.’”

During Thornton’s speech, the senator suggested that issues of sexual harassment or assault within student government are a symptom of a larger problem.

“Over the last year, the Student Government Association has witnessed person after person be intimidated or terrified or harassed to the point of resignation,” she said.

Thornton noted that some people have called the issues pertaining to sexual harassment “drama.”

“Chalking up people’s experiences to drama is so invalidating and dehumanizing,” she said. “To everyone who has said that this is just a bunch of drama, check your priorities.”

Several people outside of the Senate came to the meeting to support those who shared their experiences, like representatives from FOCUS, the feminist group on campus, and Sexual Health Advocacy, Resources, and Education (SHARE). Alayna Nelson, a friend, said she was there for Malone.

“I was one of her confidants when everything with Speaker Williams happened,” Nelson said. “I saw the effect it had on her … She wanted some support, so we showed up for her today.”

The Student Senate will stand in adjournment until next fall, but Adviser Gabriel Fonseca said that, if called by the president, the session will reopen to elect a new Speaker of the Senate this spring.

The full live stream can be watched on SGA’s YouTube page.


Editor’s note: On June 27, 2023, Williams reached out to The Sunflower to provide information from the Civil Rights, Title IX & ADA Compliance office on campus, which stated that “As defined by WSU’s Policy 3.06/ Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation for Employees, Students and Visitors, this matter did not rise to that level; therefore, a formal investigation was not conducted.”