Mother-of-three Jenifer Knighton, 33, hasn’t had an easy life. And it hasn’t gotten easier since she filed a lawsuit against several faculty members at her former graduate school, the University of Texas at Arlington, over the alleged mishandling of sexual harassment she faced.
But as Knighton told Dearly, she’s used to having it tough.
The Florida native was sexually abused as a child, which led to issues with alcohol abuse starting when she was just 12. As a teen, she dropped out of high school and took to the streets, where she dabbled in drugs like cocaine.
Knighton gave birth to her first daughter at age 16 and developed bulimia, a battle she would fight for years. She was in and out of abusive relationships, which ultimately gave her some light in the darkness — two more daughters.
And in 2008, Knighton decided to make a change. The single mom packed up and moved with her daughters to Texas in search of a “better life,” she told Dearly.
She waited tables and started a cleaning business in order to pay the bills and stay on her feet. And in 2014, Knighton went to treatment and got sober. That’s the moment her life started to take a turn for the better, she said.
Knighton became interested in a career in social services so she could help others who were downtrodden in life.
In 2017, she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in science in human services from Springfield College and decided to continue her education in graduate school.
The following autumn, Knighton enrolled at the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work to begin working on her master’s degree.
That’s when her new troubles began.
Once at the university, Knighton was required to enroll with a school-approved social work agency in order to get hands-on experience as a practicum student. And in January, she started working at a hospice care center.
But later that month, a doctor who owned Wellspring Family and Community Institute, another school-approved agency, contacted Knighton. He invited her to attend an orientation night to consider switching her placement. She said that the agency left a “good” impression, and she was convinced to switch.
Shortly after she started working at the agency, Knighton started to get a “bad vibe” from the doctor, she told Dearly.
In a lawsuit filed against the university on September 24, Knighton alleges that the doctor started to look and act inappropriately toward her and other female interns. On multiple occasions, he allegedly locked the door while she and other female students were alone with him.
When Knighton questioned why they were locked in, the doctor stated that the cleaning crew must have done it. However, Knighton claims that she contacted the property manager, who told her that the cleaning staff doesn’t lock the doors for safety reasons. Knighton said:
“I was so scared… I’d already seen the patterns.”
In early February, Knighton alleges that the doctor started touching her “inappropriately,” including a hug that made her feel uncomfortable. Knighton also claims the instructor regularly berated her and “humiliated” her in front of other students. The mother of three said she didn’t say anything at the time because she thought she was the only one feeling uncomfortable:
“I was scared, but I thought something was wrong with me. So I didn’t say anything.”
One night, when Knighton and another student were left alone with the instructor, she said he laughed as he twirled the key to the locked classroom door around his finger.
He also allegedly asked that she and others start paying him $100 a week to work at his agency or risk losing their hard-earned hours. That was not typical of school-affiliated agencies, she told Dearly.
The doctor allegedly told Knighton and other students that they weren’t allowed to contact UTA if they were having problems within the agency. But soon, Knighton learned that other female students were also feeling uncomfortable and worked up the courage to speak out.
Little did she know, this would lead to a new set of struggles.
On February 27, Knighton contacted her UTA School of Social Work field liaison and informed her that the doctor was “verbally abusing, humiliating, intimidating the students, trying to manipulate them, extort money from them, and inappropriately hugging selective students,” the lawsuit alleges.
The field liaison told Knighton that she did the “right thing” by reporting the issues and passed the information on to UTA School of Social Work staff. But soon, Knighton learned that her decision to speak out had seemingly backfired.
Later that day, Knighton was told that Dr. Dawnetta Smith, the assistant dean for field education, had told the instructor to file an “Interruption of Field Placement” against Knighton. She was informed that this was normal procedure but never had the form filed against her when she previously switched placement. Knighton said she was also scheduled to attend a conference to discuss her “disruptive” behavior.
The mom said she was confused because Interruption of Field Placement forms are generally filed against students who are not performing correctly.
After Knighton filed a grievance about the response, Smith told her on a phone call that she would no longer have to attend a conference about her behavior and that the school would focus on moving her out of Wellspring. Smith said she had at least three students from the agency complaining about the doctor’s behavior, according to the lawsuit.
Knighton stopped going to the agency but was told on April 4 that she, and other students who stopped attending Wellspring over the same concerns, had a little over a month to complete their 240 hours of required work or face “automatic failure of the course.” Despite the circumstances, Knighton was not offered an extension, she said.
The mom said she did not have enough time to find a new agency and complete the hours and was forced to withdraw from the course, which would delay her graduation. That’s when Knighton said she started to wish that she hadn’t spoken out.
“I was like, I shouldn’t have ever said anything. I shouldn’t have ever spoke up, because this is my reward. I’m being punished for speaking up.”
Soon, the stress started to take a toll on Knighton’s mental health. Knighton said she was partially hospitalized in late April for bulimia, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She required 38 days of treatment and eventually had to leave her job.
Knighton ultimately filed a formal complaint against the school but said that little came from it. She was told that the doctor’s behavior did not constitute sexual harassment.
In response to the complaint, Smith said the doctor told her it was Knighton who acted “inappropriate” during her time at Wellspring. The mother of three also filed a police report but claims her complaints were “minimized.”
But now, Knighton has found her strength.
Despite her experience, Knighton wants others who experience sexual harassment and verbal abuse to speak out. She even started an organization to encourage just that.
Knighton founded Speak Up; Speak Now, an organization dedicated to turning “victims into survivors,” according to the website. Knighton said she hopes that the organization and her own story will help other victims. She told Dearly:
“I’ve learned that I’m so much stronger than I thought… You know what happened and nobody can take that from you.”
The University of Texas at Arlington declined to comment for this article because it involves pending legal matters. Dearly also reached out to the doctor at the center of the allegations and will update with any response.
Knighton said she was offered a scholarship to return to UTA but has declined to re-enroll. Her lawsuit remains pending.