Pierce College, local police investigate adjunct instructor

In an investigation police consider high-profile, an instructor’s social media posts raise ethical questions

On Feb. 27, adjunct instructor Kristopher Gutierrez was teaching his Physics 110 class when security arrived to escort him to the office of Student Services.

“I was forced there against my will to delete all videos that contain any footage that included Pierce, whether they were cute videos or suggestive videos, or regardless of the content of the video, they wanted me to remove all the videos that had any of Pierce in it,” Gutierrez said in a March 2 video interview with “The Puyallup Post”, one of Pierce College’s student publications. “They made me go through my account and delete [it] in front of them as they watched. Security was outside, I didn’t have a choice.” 

Gutierrez teaches physics at the Puyallup campus, and is under separate investigations by Pierce College administration and local police. Police Sgt. Kevin Gill is currently leading the case, but he may pass it down to another officer. Representatives at the Puyallup Police Department were unable to offer specific details because it is an ongoing investigation.

However, Captain Ryan Portmann, a public information officer for the Puyallup Police Department, provided general details. He said in a high-profile case like this, detectives help gather evidence. He added that the lead officer on the case typically appoints internal technology specialists for investigations involving social media.

“Sometimes if we aren’t sure if there is sufficient evidence to lead to an arrest or if, like this case, it’s a high profile investigation, we will send what we have to the prosecuting attorney. That’s the stage this investigation is at currently.” He added that in this case, evidence refers to corroborating reports regarding Gutierrez’s behavior and his use of technology.

Portmann said it is fairly rare for the Puyallup Police Department to investigate accusations against public figures. In this case, Gutierrez is considered a limited-purpose public figure because, though he is a private individual, his actions have become a matter of public interest.

Alyssa Wilkins / Staff Photo
Lab 129 in the Brouillet Library/Science Building (LSC) is where Kristopher Gutierrez taught Physics 110 to Pierce students.

Agnes Steward, the dean of Student Success at the Puyallup campus, could neither confirm nor deny Gutierrez’s statements regarding the deletion of his videos. “As it is an ongoing investigation, it would not be ethical of me to confirm any information at this time. I would be happy to talk again once the investigation has finished.”

Brian Benedetti, director of Marketing and Communication for Pierce College, spoke as a representative for the investigation into Gutierrez. He stated in an email on March 6 that the investigation is still underway; however, he said he couldn’t discuss personnel matters.

“Please know that we are not being secretive, it is just standard policy for us not to discuss confidential details,” he stated. “We are still participating in a fact-finding process and it would be irresponsible of me to comment on further details of the investigation at this point.”

He went on to repeat much of the same message Pierce College posted on social media after a concerned mother went public to news organizations about her allegations against Gutierrez. Pierce administration has taken action, but the investigation has not uncovered illegal activity by the time “The Pioneer” went to press. Benedetti added that Gutierrez had been placed on administrative paid leave and was not to contact any of his students in the meantime.

On Feb. 27, Pierce posted a message to their Twitter and Facebook accounts, stating that they have been alerted to concerns regarding an instructor’s posts on social media. “The college is investigating this matter and is taking action,” the statement read. “While we have no indication of any illegal activity, we are taking precautions during this investigation and have arranged for other faculty to provide coverage of the faculty members classes in order to not interrupt the education of our students.” The same message was also sent to students and staff through email.

Roya Sabeti, an associate professor of the Natural Science Division at Pierce’s Puyallup campus, has since taken over Gutierrez’s Physics 110 class.

One of the most compelling aspects of this investigation is that the issue involved minors, specifically Running Start students.

Running Start is a state-funded program that allows junior and senior high school students to take college courses at community and technical colleges without needing to pay tuition. Other requirements outside of being in 11th or 12th grade vary by college. At Pierce, the only other requirements are that students should be 16 years of age or older and place into English 101.

We have recently been considering requiring more background checks. It’s something that has been brought to the college’s cabinet.”

— Holly Gorski

“Much like a student’s financial aid status, professors would not be privy to whether a student is in the Running Start program unless the student told them,” said Valerie Frey, Pierce College Running Start manager. Because instructors are not privy to this information, Pierce does not have any specific policy dictating instructor interaction with Running Start students, who are often under the age of 18.

Emma Andress, a Running Start student who is making up credits for classes she failed in high school, said Gutierrez’s behavior in the classroom sent mixed signals. “I thought he was joking the first time he mentioned his TikTok and talked about how many followers he had.”

Emma said that it felt less like he was advertising his social media account, and more like he was “trying to act cool.” She also said that while she never felt unsafe, there were moments she felt uncomfortable or awkward around him.

She specifically recalled Gutierrez mentioning his brother’s anorexia to the class. “I wasn’t sure if he was joking about it or not,” Emma said. “It was weird.”

According to Holly Gorski, vice president of Human Resources and head of Pierce’s internal investigation into Gutierrez’s conduct, candidates are usually required to have a master’s degree in the subject they are interested in teaching to be considered for an adjunct instructor position.

“Outside of unique contracts, due to the quarter-to-quarter nature of adjunct teaching, job posting pools are open all the time,” Gorski said. “When we have a good list of recommendations for the position, we send them to our coordinator, though all final hiring decisions are under the department dean’s jurisdiction.”

Gorski also said that most staff positions, including instructors, do not require background checks. Exceptions exist, depending on “industry standards” and professions where background checks are common practice, she added.

“We have recently been considering requiring more background checks,” Gorski said. “It’s something that has been brought to the college’s cabinet.” However, Gorski was unable to confirm how far along such considerations were towards becoming actual policy, if at all.

The story was first broken when a parent of a Running Start student taking Gutierrez’s class went to news organizations and police. Ann, who said she is a mother of a 16-year-old Running Start student at Pierce, chose not to reveal her last name to protect her daughter’s privacy.

“I told her she needed to go get some help from the professor, and she told me she didn’t feel comfortable going to him, and so I asked her, ‘Why?’, and she said he makes her feel uncomfortable and that he’s posting these videos on TikTok,” she told Q13 News in a story published Feb. 28.

TikTok, a social media app, allows users to post videos and share them with people who follow them. According to Ann, Gutierrez asked students to follow his account on the app, on which he said he has more than 2,500 followers.

Many of Gutierrez’s videos have been deleted from his account, but downloads of a few of them obtained by “The Pioneer” contain explicit and sexually suggestive language, and all of them feature a Gutierrez on a split-screen with one woman in each video.

Most of the videos appear to be humorous in their intent, but the humor is often of an explicit and sexual nature, such as one featuring him and an unknown woman reenacting a scene from Paul Feig-directed film “Spy.”  Another video is laden with sexual innuendo and flirtation.

Other videos were filmed on the Puyallup campus itself, which according to Gorski could raise other ethical concerns regarding the use of college resources under the Washington State Ethics in Public Service Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

Gutierrez also had an account on Pinterest, an image-sharing website, which appears to have recently been deleted. However, images of the account were saved, including a board – an equivalent to file folders – titled “Lolita.” The folder contained images of young girls displaying clothing, mostly likely taken from advertisements, as the images have titles such as “Girls Frayed Denim Skirt.”

“Lolita”, a term originating from a 1955 Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same name about a young girl who is sexually victimized, has come to mean “a precociously seductive girl”.

Ann told Q13 that she contacted Pierce College on March 4, but personally received no reply from the school, which spurred her to go to press and contact police.

In the interview with “The Puyallup Post”, Gutierrez stated that making a TikTok account was therapeutic and helped with his depression, which he claims was diagnosed by a licensed therapist, though he also said creating a TikTok account was not something his therapist specifically recommended.

According to Gutierrez, most of the videos were “a duet,” performed with other people. “I haven’t actually done any single videos of me with another person who was physically there,” he said in a video obtained by “The Pioneer”. All of them have a clear split screen indicating that Gutierrez and the other woman are not in the same place.

“I had a few people – one or two maybe – ask for my username,” he said in the video. “And so I gave my username, not really thinking anything of it. And then I didn’t mention anything of TikTok again after that, unless I gave like a number count. Like I have half a million views or I have something like that.”

When “The Puyallup Post” reporter informed Gutierrez that he had a student who was willing to go on record that the instructor promoted his TikTok in class, rather than simply mentioning it offhand, he replied, “I think that must’ve been a misunderstanding. I mean unless they’re saying I promoted it by simply talking about it, but I never encouraged that they follow it or force them to follow it to give extra credit, which are some of the things I read [in regards to the allegations against him].”

Gutierrez added that, while he was not being constantly updated about the status of Pierce’s investigation, he had been told that both an internal and external investigator had been brought in. He was also aware that the Puyallup Police Department was conducting its own investigation, though no police had contacted him as of yet.

The Post / Courtesy Photo
The Puyallup Post held a video interview with Gutierrez almost immediately after the investigation opened.

The interview ended with the student reporter asking Gutierrez if there was anything he would like to say to the viewers of the video interview. “I’d like to say if you are listening to this video, don’t listen to the rumors,” Gutierrez said. “Listen to my students, they’ll tell you the truth.”

Gutierrez worked at several schools throughout Washington state over the years, activity common for adjunct instructors. Though this information has since been deleted, his Facebook page included Seattle Central College, Everett Community College, North Seattle College and Odessa High School as previous workplaces.

Hillary Stephens, physics and astronomy professor, said Pierce has not yet found a replacement instructor for the Engineering Physics III course originally scheduled to be taught by Gutierrez at the Fort Steilacoom campus this quarter.  “If we can’t find an instructor, students would be notified similarly to if a class had to be canceled for other reasons.” She added that there isn’t a specific date by which a replacement had to be found, besides the beginning of the quarter.

Gutierrez’s name had not been removed from Pierce College’s spring class schedule when the allegations against him were first made public or when he was first placed on administrative leave. However, on March 12, his name was eventually removed on Pierce’s online eSchedule.

“Things like this take time to process and get in the system,” Stephens said. “I do not believe it was something intentional.” Previously, he was listed as teaching Introduction to Statistics at the Puyallup Campus and Engineering Physics III at the Fort Steilacoom campus this quarter. “The Pioneer” made multiple attempts to reach out to Gutierrez for comment but received no response.