Music professor separates from university over retaliatory Instagram posts, violating rules of his suspension

Two Instagram posts by Kent State School of Music Professor Jesse Leyva retaliated against Molly Ross, a student, according to the university’s Office of Compliance, Opportunity and Affirmative Action. Ross was friends with a student who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Leyva.  

Hannah Hooper saw Jesse Leyva as a role model. He seemed confident, professional and was her music professor for six semesters. When Kent State investigated student complaints of sexual harassment and retaliation made against Leyva in March 2019, she couldn’t imagine he did anything wrong. 

“For the longest time, I believed him. Like, I was on his side because he never gave me a reason to not [be],” Hooper said.

But over Labor Day weekend, Hooper said Leyva sent her suggestive messages on Instagram and Snapchat. That was when Hooper realized she had to believe something was wrong. 

Leyva, an associate professor and the director of bands in the School of Music since 2013, was already suspended—the contact with Hooper was the last straw. He would not teach during the 2019-20 academic year and signed a separation agreement with the university in December. He officially left the university’s employment on May 13, 2020.

An examination of public documents by KentWired, along with extensive interviews with seven current and former students who worked closely with Leyva, shows what the university described as a pattern of intimidation, manipulation and harassment of students.   

Messages lead to sexual harassment complaint

A female student in the School of Music filed a sexual harassment complaint against Leyva on March 12, 2019, with the university’s Office of Compliance, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action [EOAA]. The student stated Leyva sent her direct messages on Instagram that made her feel uncomfortable between June 28, 2018 and June 30, 2018. 

In the complaint, the student described a back-and-forth conversation of direct messages with Leyva, where he asked her to show him how to make a milkshake, something she did in a former job.  She said he wrote, “Don’t tease me and get my hopes up.” After she sent him the ingredients, he wrote, “Well, how am I going to know how to make it?” Leyva wrote, “Haha. Well, I would invite you over, but I would be a bit worried” and “Would you tell anyone” in regard to her coming to his residence.

He also sent her a message, the EOAA complaint states, saying, “It’s too bad you’re not free later,” after the student told Leyva she worked until 2:30 a.m. KentWired agreed to protect the student’s identity because she wanted her experiences with Leyva to “stay in the past” and did not want to be publicly identified with her comments

Leyva also made comments about the student’s appearance to her in person, saying “you look beautiful today” and “I’ll have to keep my eye on you,” according to the complaint. 

The student also filed a report May 28 with the Kent State University Police in regard to the incident, but Captain Chris Jenkins said the conduct the student reported did not rise to the level of criminal behavior and no charges were pursued.

The student’s complaints were the first of at least four official university reports made against Leyva by three different students. Leyva did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting an interview for this story. Kent McWilliams, the director of the School of Music, referred an interview request to Eric Mansfield, executive director of university media relations, who said the university does not comment on personnel matters. 

Retaliation leads to fear of harm

The day after junior education major Molly Ross’ friend filed the harassment complaint, Ross woke up to text messages asking if she had seen two posts Leyva made on Instagram. 

The first post showed a person wearing a skull mask and said, “The worst kind of hurt is betrayal, because it means someone was willing to hurt you just to make themself feel better.” The second post said “When poisonous people come disguised as friends and family” and showed a figure holding a knife over someone as they tied their shoes. 

The captions of the Instagram posts contained what Ross said were sets of initials. The first set, with six letters, represented the initials of the student who filed the sexual harassment claim against Leyva, Michael Greene, a former student in the School of Music and Ross. Ross and Greene both worked for Leyva in the band office and were friends with the student who filed the sexual harassment complaint.

Ross said the second set contained four single initials that represented the three students’ first names, along with a “J” for John Franklin, the director of athletic bands. 

“I didn’t go to class that day because I was so scared,” Ross said. 

The three students filed EOAA complaints against Leyva on March 21, 2019, stating the Instagram posts were retaliatory. The complaints also documented an Instagram post made by a student around 10 p.m. on March 12 that criticized the three students for their complaints about Leyva.

“It makes me worried to be on Dr. Leyva’s ensemble and to be around him without other people there,” one of the retaliation complaints states. 

Leyva told the EOAA the Instagram posts contained the initials of people who he felt wronged him, but he denied they belonged to the students or anyone associated with Kent State, according to the June 21 investigation summary report that looked into the accusations of retaliation. 

He told the EOAA the initials in the first post stood for Mandy, a romantic interest; Leyvas, his family on his father’s side; Monica, a romantic interest and Jesse, his father, according to the investigation summary report. Leyva also told EOAA the initials in the second Instagram post stood for Mandy; Rob, a former colleague and supervisor; Leyvas; Ed, a mentor; Monica and Gary, a mentor. 

According to the investigation summary report, Leyva told EOAA he realized Mandy only wanted to sell him vitamins; he had irregular contact with his father’s family and wanted to make amends; Monica had rejected him; he had not had contact with his father and wanted to mend their relationship; he felt Rob lied to him about a professional opportunity and he felt Ed and Gary did not give him good professional advice.

“He said that it was coincidental that the initials were those of the students involved in the filing of [the student’s sexual harassment] complaint and that the initials in the second post were aligned in the order of those students’ first and last names,” according to the investigation summary report.

Ross said there was a controversy in the School of Music at the time of the complaints because the university did not renew Franklin, who was the director of athletic bands at the university for six years. Students questioned the “role that Dr. Leyva played in the decision not to renew that contract,” according to the investigation summary report. Ross said she and the students who filed the harassment complaints against Leyva were known supporters of Franklin.

The EOAA concluded Leyva retaliated against the students and stated in its report that, “The timing of the posts merely hours after [the student] filed her complaint, in conjunction with the involved students’ initials in the posts and the alignment of the students’ initials in the order of their first and last names, is too coincidental to be plausible.”

The EOAA recommended Leyva receive a 30-day suspension without pay and that he successfully complete workplace training modules called “Ethics and Code of Conduct,” “Prevent Bullying in the Workplace” and “Microaggressions” through the university’s Division of Human Resources and the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. All of the modules were to be completed by July 31, 2020, more than a year after the initial complaints were filed. 

Melody Tankersley, interim senior vice president and provost, sent Leyva a letter Aug. 7, 2019, that stated he would be suspended until further notice. The collective bargaining agreement between the university and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) required that Leyva, as a tenured professor, continue to receive his full salary and employee benefits during this period until the university took further action.

Tankersley stated the suspension was necessary because she believed Leyva’s actions “could result in immediate harm to a member[s] of the university community.” The letter said Leyva would not have any teaching responsibilities, could not be on any Kent State campuses or contact students in-person, by email or through social media.

Leyva violates the provost’s order

Despite Tankersley’s warning, on Aug. 31 around 7:30 p.m., Leyva reacted to a photo that Hooper, the student who initially supported him during the harassment and retaliation complaints, posted on her Instagram account. Hooper replied that she missed him and Leyva said they should talk sometime. When Hooper asked him what he was up to, Leyva asked if they could move the conversation to Snapchat. 

Snapchat is a popular auto-delete messaging app that allows two people to communicate directly through videos, photographs and messages. Private messages delete within 24 hours unless they are intentionally archived by one of the users.  

“I didn’t even reply back to that, because I was like, ‘This is going down a path that’s not good,’ and I didn’t want to be a part of it,” Hooper said. 

Although she did not respond, Leyva messaged Hooper on Snapchat. He sent her a photo of himself drinking alcohol. She was out with friends in downtown Kent—he wanted to know who she was with, specifically if they were associated with the School of Music. 

After Hooper got back to her apartment around 2:30 a.m., Leyva called. He told her he would be home the following day and asked her to come over. He also asked Hooper to promise him she wouldn’t tell anyone about it.  

“My heart dropped because I was just like, I knew,” Hooper said.  During the call, she said, Leyva said things like, “You know, you’re so sexy, I look at you all the time in my class and you’re just, like, you can be so sexy.”

After she ended the call, Hooper didn’t hear from Leyva again that night. But a few weeks later, after she posted on social media that she was sick, he messaged her that he would bring her soup and asked for her address. Hooper stopped responding.   

At the time, she didn’t know about the provost’s order preventing Leyva from contacting students. Hooper said she initially didn’t want to tell anyone since it was her senior year and she did not want to become the center of attention.

“He was very manipulative … I [didn’t] want to tell and then he make my life a living hell because that’s what he would do to people,” Hooper said.

Around the same time, Ross said the dean’s office in the College of the Arts contacted her about meeting with McWilliams, John Crawford-Spinelli, the dean of the College of the Arts and Bobby Selvaggio, the director of jazz studies, to discuss Leyva’s behavior toward her. Ross was uncertain about whether she wanted to come forward again after dealing with the retaliation investigation the previous semester, but she decided to go ahead and meet with them on Sept. 24. 

The day before her meeting, Leyva walked into the Kohl’s where Ross worked during her shift. Ross said Leyva knew she worked at Kohl’s from the time she worked for him in the band office. She also said she never saw him in the store before that time.  

Leyva saw her when he entered the store, Ross said, but they did not interact while he was there. She told one of her managers about the situation and waited in a stockroom until he left.  

“It was one of the scariest things I’ve probably ever experienced,” she said. “And [I] walked into my meeting the next day and sat down and […] the first thing I said was ‘Listen, I’ve been worried about this for so long and it happened last night.’ And they were shocked that I had even come into that meeting.”  

Two friends convinced Hooper to come forward a month later, in early October. Hooper reported the incidents to her private lessons instructor and Kent McWilliams, director of the School of Music, who informed Tankersley of the contact Leyva made with Hooper.  

Tankersley wrote a letter on Oct. 7 to Todd Kamenash, assistant dean of students and director of student conduct, and requested a hearing on possible persona non grata status for Leyva, because of his contact with Hooper over the Labor Day weekend. Levya, the letter stated, continued to “communicate with Kent State University students in contravention of my direct order of August 8, 2019.” Leyva’s conduct, the letter states, was a “violation of a previous order by a university official and, therefore, deemed by University Policy to be detrimental to the university community. Kent State notified Leyva on Oct. 8. of his persona non grata status, which meant Leyva couldn’t be on any Kent State property. 

Students pressured to work extra hours, not complain  

Ross said students employed in the band office frequently went over the hours they were scheduled to work by Leyva. Franklin filed a complaint with the Faculty Ethics Committee, which handles complaints from faculty members who charge other faculty with unethical professional practices. It states Leyva “pressured graduate students and student workers to work more hours than is allowed by Kent State employment policy” including hours “off the clock” they weren’t paid for. Franklin, who was interviewed for this article, said in the complaint Leyva encouraged the students “both directly and implied, to keep quiet about this practice.” 

Franklin also stated in his complaint to the Faculty Ethics Committee that he witnessed “multiple occasions” where Leyva told students he would withhold future job or graduate school references if they did not enroll in Leyva’s wind ensemble class, even though they had no academic or scholarship-based need to take it. In one specific example, Franklin said he saw Leyva threaten two students—both were told he would call graduate schools where they auditioned and provide unsolicited, poor references if they did not enroll in his wind ensemble class. 

A graduate assistant assigned to Levya said he would ask her to take over a conducting class with an hour’s notice or send an email late at night with an assignment that needed to be completed by the next morning. 

“I was also having to make sacrifices for my own literal, physical health to make sure my professor wouldn’t get mad at me for not meeting expectations,” she said.

She was exploring doctoral conducting programs, she said, where her current professors have an influence in the application process.  

Without a recommendation letter, “you won’t get as much of a serious glance as other candidates.”

“Leyva,” she said, made her “subliminally think he was in charge of how I got a job or how I got into a doctoral school.”

He would drop hints during conversations, she said, and say things like, “Well, you’re working hard, now you’ll get a great recommendation.” 

She wrote down her concerns about Leyva in a “recollection” she gave to Spinelli, the dean, and McWilliams, the director in the School of Music. In it, she said Leyva made a comment at the beginning of her graduate assistantship about her appearance that made her feel uncomfortable. Afterward, she stated, she wore only dress pants to work and avoided skirts and dresses. 

Hooper said in Leyva’s conducting class—students would observe rehearsals where he worked with his graduate students—she frequently witnessed him flirting with the female graduate student.

“We can’t say anything because if we say something, he would not write us a letter of recommendation,” Hooper said.

Resignation and separation

Leyva was placed on “special assignment – individual research” for the spring 2020 semester, according to his faculty workload statement

He submitted a letter of resignation Nov. 22, 2019, that states he was resigning effective May 13, 2020, for personal reasons. The resignation is part of a separation agreement Leyva entered into with the university and the Kent State Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the faculty union, that was finalized on Dec. 2. 

The agreement states the university, the AAUP and Leyva were all “desirous of ending Dr. Leyva’s tenured faculty appointment with the University, with finality.” Leyva would continue to serve as a tenured associate professor in the School of Music and receive his full salary and benefits until May 13, 2020. He continued to be a persona non grata through May 13 and agreed to stay off of Kent State’s campus for all of spring semester. He agreed “not to attend department meetings, schedule office hours or participate in department, college or university events.” 

Leyva also agreed “not to contact or communicate with any Kent State students in person, by email or through social media.”  

The separation agreement also states Leyva and the university agreed he would:

  • cease the use of his faculty title if he left the university’s employment, or after his resignation became effective May 13, 2020

  • be immediately terminated if he broke the terms of the agreement

  • not sue the university

The document is to be kept separate from Leyva’s personnel file according to the terms of the agreement, which means it would only be produced if specifically requested as a public record. He was also free to seek employment elsewhere—if he left Kent State before May 13, his salary and benefits would be prorated. 

“I know if I was hiring a new teacher, I would want to know my students are safe and I’m kind of concerned about the fact that if they don’t know about [the harassment] then it’s like we’re starting the whole cycle over again,” said Greene, one of the students who filed a retaliation complaint against Leyva. 

Emails to the Kent Chapter of the American Association of University Professors requesting an interview did not receive a response. 

Moving forward

Despite being a persona non grata on the Kent State campus and being prohibited from teaching classes, Leyva attended the Hawai’i Music Educators Association In-Service Conference at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa from Jan.18-19.

There, he led a session on performance and conducting, according to the association’s website. The session’s description says, “Conductors of varied experience levels will conduct the U.S. Pacific Fleet Band under the mentorship of Kent State University Director of Bands, Dr. Jesse Leyva.”

In an email, the Hawaii Music Educators’ Association stated it was not aware of Leyva’s actions when he attended the conference and “condemned them in the harshest terms.” Had it known, the organization would “not have allowed him to present at our conference or be affiliated with our organization in any way.”

According to university sources, Leyva was not reimbursed by Kent State for the trip to Hawaii. 

Students met with McWilliams in February to discuss ways to help the School of Music move forward and heal. Hooper said students suggested getting a therapist and inviting a speaker on women’s issues to campus. The university’s closure due to the coronavirus pandemic put the initiatives on hold. 

“I really truly believe in my heart Kent McWilliams did all that he could to present this information and protect his students,” the graduate student assigned to Leyva said. 

“He was a really good conductor and he was very knowledgeable in his field,” she said of Leyva. “And he was able to hide behind that.” 

Editor’s note: A statement from the Hawaii Music Educators’ Association was added to the original version of this article.

Contact Paige Bennett at [email protected], Lauren Sasala at [email protected] and Madison MacArthur at [email protected].