Steven Helmericks has trouble sleeping.
He has an unlisted telephone number and a gun to protect himself and his wife.
The former part-time CSU sociology professor is no longer in the classroom. He has been reassigned to a research position.
Three months after making a political remark in the classroom, and one month after he said he and his wife began receiving threats, Helmericks is speaking publicly for the first time about what he calls a “benign” comment that was blown out of proportion.
Conflict and Bias
On June 14, Helmericks began the first session of General Sociology by introducing himself and the course. Helmericks said he believed the war in Iraq was unjust and that American troops were dying unnecessarily.
One student, Heather Schmidt, spoke up and said she did not appreciate his views because her husband was fighting in Iraq. Helmericks said he then told Schmidt that he appreciated her views and that he did not mean to offend her or anyone else.
“He immediately apologized,” said Allison Evans, a junior biological sciences and zoology major who was in the class. “The rest of the term was fair. Helmericks was definitely opinionated, but I didn’t want to let that get to me.”
Schmidt, who could not be reached for comment, was quoted in an Aug. 13 Denver Post opinion column. According to her quotes in the article, Helmericks said, “(Bush) is sending boys and girls out to die for no goddamn reason.” Schmidt said Helmericks dismissed her objections.
In the article, Schmidt also said that after class she confronted Helmericks, and he told her to go to a different class.
Helmericks remembers the second exchange differently.
“I told her, ‘If you are having trouble with what you’ve heard in today’s lecture, I think you’re going to have trouble with lots of things we’re going to talk about in this class, and there may be other sociology classes that might better suit your needs,'” Helmericks said.
Helmericks also said he was never asked to tell his side of the story, either by the media or university officials, nor were any of the other students in the class.
“Basically, nothing happened,” said Bruce Tracy, a junior English major who was in Helmericks’ class. “To say there was political bias in that class is a completely personal bias of the situation. He did not at any time bully or slam down our throats a political agenda.”
Schmidt never returned to Helmericks’ class, but she did voice her concerns to Lou Swanson, chair of the sociology department.
“Steve (Helmericks) and I had a lengthy conversation about the importance of a learning environment and it was a very constructive conversation,” Swanson said.
The next day, Helmericks said he told his class he wanted open discussion and that he valued differing opinions and ideas. Some students disagreed.
Chelsea Skidmore, a senior French major, said the class was very politically biased and that Helmericks did not handle the situation with Schmidt appropriately.
“He apologized for his behavior in a manner that seemed as if he was egging people on,” Skidmore said.
Helmericks wrote Schmidt a letter of regret, though he stressed it was not an apology.
Both Helmericks and some students in the class said the class was not the same after the incident.
“After that day, it was over,” Helmericks said.
Danielle Norman, a senior restaurant and resort management major, also said the class atmosphere was different after that day.
“He was very guarded in what he said, and I thought that took away from his teaching,” she said.
Later in the summer Helmericks received e-mails from Chuck Fogland, president of the CSU College Republicans, condemning Helmericks’ actions in class.
Fogland said he intervened on behalf of Schmidt and other students who were being “harassed” by a “totalitarian” professor.
“It is narrow-minded, abusive and unfair, and it is wrong,” Fogland wrote to Helmericks soon after the incident. “In the interest of all points of view, (CSU College Republicans) will not tolerate stifling of debate.”
Helmericks said people are taking his comments out of context, but Fogland said that is not possible.
“You can’t possibly say (Schmidt) took it out of context,” Fogland said. “This was a genuine case of harassment and stepping out of line.”
Some other students who were in the class agree.
“I have never in my life been so offended by a professor at CSU; I literally dreaded going to class every day,” said Emily Mayfield, a junior consumer and family studies major.
Helmericks said he is not upset with Schmidt at all.
“She was representing her feelings in her heart at the time, and I truly believe that her position has been exploited by the Republican Party to promote a political agenda,” he said.
Not all Republicans are pleased with the situation’s outcome.
“I am a registered Republican and I am outraged at the way CSU Republicans have taken this and run with it,” Tracy said.
Helmericks said the Aug. 13 Denver Post column sparked an unending string of threats. Helmericks said people began sending threatening e-mails and letters to his home, and he received hang-up calls in the middle of the night.
After presenting the information to the CSU Police Department, Helmericks met with Swanson and others in the College of Liberal Arts and determined that it was not safe for him to continue teaching.
“He wasn’t fired,” Swanson said.
Helmericks said some of the Liberal Arts faculty was so concerned for his safety that they asked if he and his wife could leave town for a while, which Helmericks said was not an option.
“Some people think I was fired, some people have the impression that I bailed on my classes,” Helmericks said. “The fact is the university and I came to the consensual agreement that I was in danger, as were other students and other professors.”
Kathie Helmericks said they received some sort of letter or call nearly every day since Aug. 13.
“To be just living your life, and then all of a sudden this happens, you can not imagine what it’s like,” she said.
Helmericks said he misses teaching.
“My voice is out of the classroom. Why? Because I feared for my life,” he said. “I really miss teaching – that’s where my heart is.”
Taylor McCue, a sophomore psychology major who was in Helmericks’ class, said the incident was overblown.
‘This is not a political issue. This is not a students’ rights issue. This is one student wanting revenge for a statement she blew out of proportion,” McCue said.
Josh Legoza, a senior mechanical engineering major, agreed.
“(Helmericks) was always very respectful of everything myself or anyone else in that class had to say,” he said.
On Sept. 9, Schmidt joined students from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Metro State University at a hearing before the Colorado General Assembly regarding professors’ political biases in the classroom.
While students were allowed to speak about the allegations, the professors were not invited to participate.
“In my view, they were isolated issues,” said Sen. Ken Gordon, a democrat. “The whole hearing was a witch hunt against more liberal professors.”
Fogland said the hearing was simply an opportunity for the students to tell their stories.
“The fact that it was one-sided is immaterial,” Fogland said.
Jessica Baker, director of the Colorado Student Association, likened the hearing to “political theater,” and said issues of bias and disrespect in the classroom need to be handled at the university level.
“They need to take care of teachers that are whacked, but they usually do it quietly,” Baker said.
Fogland agreed, saying he wants to see free discussion about all issues available in the classroom.
“I don’t want professors to feel like their jobs are in danger, and I don’t want students to feel like if they’ve got a bone to pick with their profs that they can just go to the dean and suddenly there’s mega-pressure,” Fogland said. “But I do want professors to understand that there is a line, and they should maintain professionalism.”
Kathie Helmericks, however, said the exact opposite has happened – her husband has been silenced, which could cause other professors to censor themselves in class.
“If it can happen to Steve, it can happen to anyone, and it will,” she said.