The geography professor didn’t hide his clown fetish or the fact that he sometimes indulged his urges by recruiting students as subjects. He posted regularly about it on social media.

“I have a facepaint fetish and convince the cute girls in my classes to let me paint their faces,” he once wrote.

Yet Joseph Tokosh held jobs at two colleges and was on the tenure track at a third before student journalists at Nicholls State University in Louisiana exposed his behavior. He submitted his resignation the same day their story was published.

In this Reddit post, Joseph Tokosh shares images of women who's faces he painted. Tokosh was an instructor at the school, but that information isn't listed on his LinkedIn page. Note: The women's faces have been blurred by USA TODAY to protect their identity.

His interactions with students and open discussion of his fetish happened in both mainstream and tailored digital spaces. He popped into Facebook groups geared toward new students and niche forums on websites like Reddit. He posted videos on YouTube. In one Reddit post on a forum meant to highlight hard-to-believe stories, Tokosh posted pictures of several women in white face paint.

Over the years, two students reported him to campus police; others complained online. He left Kent State University after pleading no contest to something different: a theft charge that involved entering his peers’ offices without permission and taking a USB drive. Tokosh has not been charged with any other crime.

Tokosh’s career trajectory exposes inadequacies in the background check system that colleges and universities are supposed to have in place to protect students – especially when evidence of the concerning behavior resides largely on the internet. Nicholls State, for example, told USA TODAY Network reporters it does not routinely check social media for new hires.

‘I felt like the school would want to know about it’

A federal law intended to ensure the academic privacy of students also makes it difficult to determine how Tokosh was able to move so freely from campus to campus. Both Kent State and Northern Illinois University – where he taught while finishing his doctorate – noted Tokosh’s protected status as a graduate student in declining to answer questions.

Sophie Levan was a freshman at Kent State in 2017 when she encountered Tokosh, then 28, in a Facebook group intended as a gathering place for new students. Tokosh had offered cash to anyone willing to let him paint their faces. Levan, then 18, agreed.

The money was appealing but the interactions soured. 

Tokosh, she said, insisted he come pick her up and take her to the building that housed the geography department, where he would paint her face. Uneasy, Levan stopped responding. Tokosh got angry and wouldn’t give up, she said, which led her to file a police report.

Assistant Geography Professor Joseph Tokosh resigned in late March after student journalists exposed sexual harassment accusations against him.

“I felt like the school would want to know about it,” Levan said. “I thought maybe they could prevent anything bad from happening since other girls would go with him.”

She said there was never any followup from campus police – or anyone else.

USA TODAY Network reporters reviewed the experiences of six students who were the subject of Tokosh’s attention going back to his time at Kent State.

In addition to Levan, the other person who reported Tokosh to campus police could not be reached for comment. The two who expressed public concerns on social media told USA TODAY they never heard from their campus officials either.

USA TODAY attempted to reach Tokosh via phone, social media and a certified letter. A person answered a phone call to a number associated with Tokosh, but he hung up after the reporter identified himself. A reporter also reached someone who identified herself as Tokosh’s mother. She said she would pass along that reporters were trying to reach him.

Tokosh told the Nicholls student journalists that he did have an assignment where students were required to paint their faces as part of a cultural exercise. Prior to the article in the student newspaper The Nicholls Worth, the university had already cut Tokosh loose. He said his contract was not renewed because he was the target of a “grade inflation task force.”

The university, however, “does not have any such task force,” according to Nicholls spokesman Jerad David.

Tokosh also told students the face painting was a requirement in his cultural geography class to better understand other cultures. In a video interview with Hannah Robert, the station manager for the student-run KNSU TV, he says: “That’s an assignment in one of my classes where they actually come up with their own face paint and makeup design inspired by a culture and they implement it.”

It’s a well-established trend in the academic world for professors to bounce from one institution to another without having to disclose why they left their last post, said Julie Libarkin, an associate dean at Michigan State University. She has seen the pattern often in her work maintaining a database of publicly documented sexual misconduct by faculty and staff.

As for grad students? Libarkin said people have requested she add them to her list, but universities’ conservative interpretations of the law get in the way.

“I don’t on purpose,” she said, “because that’s information that almost never comes out.”

First warnings come at Kent State

In this Facebook post, Joseph Tokosh offers money to students willing to have their faces painted. Kent State undergraduates who interacted with Tokosh said he often showed up in Facebook groups geared toward new students. Note: The women's faces have been blurred by USA TODAY to protect their identity.

Tokosh arrived at Kent State in 2015 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, according to his curriculum vitae. He was working toward his doctorate and researched fading businesses. His work about shopping malls in the Rust Belt won several awards. Like many graduate students, he also taught classes.

Then, Tokosh started showing up in the Facebook groups for new students. In a December 2017 post, an account under the name “Joe Tokosh” posted several pictures of women made up to look like clowns or skulls.

“If anyone is looking for some extra cash, I am looking for people to practice facepainting on!” he wrote. “I will literally pay you!”

Those are the types of posts that caught Levan’s eye. Not only was she pressed for cash, she was interested in movie makeup and thought the face painting could be fun based on the photos Tokosh had posted. But Levan said she soon realized that those images were stock photos and not representative of what Tokosh could do.

What’s more, she figured out that he was a graduate student, a fact she said he didn’t disclose in his posts.

When Tokosh offered to pick her up from her dorm, she refused. But, she said, Tokosh kept insisting she agreed to participate. Levan stopped responding to his messages and filed a police report with the Kent State police in January 2018. They advised her only to stop talking to Tokosh, she said, and let them know if “anything of consequence occurred.”

Months after she refused to meet up and filed the police report, Tokosh texted a picture of himself wearing white face paint to her cellphone. It arrived at midnight and contained no message, although writing on his shirt read: “I’m not a failure.”  

Left: Joseph Tokosh sent this selfie to Sophie Levan when she was an undergraduate at Kent State University. Levan had earlier filed a police report about Tokosh and his push to get her to wear clown makeup. Right: In this Reddit post, Tokosh is seen in clown makeup. Tokosh wrote on that account about having a fetish tied to clowns and that he would enlist his students to participate in it.

“There was some negative intention with sending that photo,” Levan said. “It’s definitely burned into my mind.”

What Levan didn’t know is that campus police had been put on notice a year earlier when another student filed a similar report. That student told police Tokosh reached out to her and her friends after they posted their numbers on a Facebook group for undergraduates. He would send “get to know you” messages, the police report said, and then ask the student if she was “interested in having her face painted for one of his class projects.”

When she found out Tokosh was a graduate student, she said no and eventually blocked him on Facebook and Snapchat, according to the report. Tokosh continued to text her.

“She does not have any concerns for her safety, but just wanted this documented,” the police report read. 

In July 2017, another student had retweeted a message from Kent State’s Twitter account that asked for Kent State love stories. She wrote: “A geography professor requested me on facebook and asked if he could paint my face like a clown.”

The student confirmed to USA TODAY that the professor was Tokosh and shared a screenshot of a Facebook friend request he sent her. She said she suspected Tokosh also found her on a freshman Facebook group because she posted there often.

She said she tweeted to draw officials’ attention to it and moved on but now wishes she had reported it officially.

What did Kent State know about Tokosh? They won’t say

College campuses are supposed to offer students special protections from sexual harassment even when it falls short of criminal behavior. Title IX, often associated with equity in women’s sports, also addresses “sex-based harassment, which encompasses sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence” at schools that receive federal funding.

Colleges infrequently and unevenly enforce the rule, however. A 2022 USA TODAY investigation found just one of every 12,400 students was suspended in connection with sexual misconduct.

The student who shared her story online said the only response she received was from a graduate student in the geography department, who contacted her on Oct. 1, 2018. In an email, he wrote that he had seen her post and suspected he knew which faculty member had asked her about face painting.

“I brought it to the attention of some of our faculty because I was pretty sure I knew who it was, but they were certain it wasn’t that individual and that you probably just meant geology,” he wrote. 

He went on to reference another student being “approached in (at least by just looking at your tweet) a much more aggressive way.” The grad student asked the undergraduate for more information, but, she told USA TODAY, she didn’t respond. She said she started drafting a reply, but a year had passed. She wanted to move on.

Kent State would not say whether any actions were taken after the students’ reports, but Eric Mansfield, a spokesman for the university, said the police department confirmed that the students who filed police reports were provided with “university resources, which would include other non-criminal avenues to pursue (Counseling Services, Title IX, Center for Sexual and Relationship Violence Services, etc.) as a general police practice.”

Levan does not recall police offering her services, but she said she didn’t want counseling. She wanted Tokosh investigated.

Mansfield also said that the university monitors social media but that colleges “can’t always see or track every mention on social media.”

Police records show that officers did investigate when Tokosh was accused of breaking into geography department offices. A blotter item in the local newspaper shows police obtained an arrest warrant in connection with a third-degree felony burglary charge. Court documents indicate Tokosh pleaded no contest to a theft on Oct. 19, 2018.

Kent State would not explain what led to Tokosh’s departure during that fall semester. Instead, the university said that since Tokosh was a graduate student, any information about him was protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It also would not say whether school officials shared Tokosh’s disciplinary record with other colleges or even if it was standard practice to do so for grad students.

“Due to FERPA, student education records are private,” said Emily Vincent, a university spokeswoman. “Also, we do not comment on personnel matters.”

What is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act?

This picture of a woman wearing a Kent State t-shirt appeared on the "joeography" reddit account. Two students at Kent State filed police reports about Tokosh in connection to his asks about face painting. USA TODAY blurred the photo to protect the woman's identity.

When Congress passed FERPA in 1974, its author, Sen. James L. Buckley of New York, said the intent was to protect the academic privacy of students and their families. In more recent years, Buckley has become critical of the law and how schools interpret it. He told the Columbus Dispatch in 2010 that “the law needs to be revamped.”

Survivors of sexual violence and students accuse universities of using the law to avoid negative media coverage. Students with a history of bad behavior may jump from one school to another without the public ever knowing about their histories. Law enforcement records don’t fall under FERPA’s purview, but a wide variety of questionable behavior does.

One case involved Brandon Austin, who was accused of sexual assault at Providence College in 2013 while on the school’s basketball team. But Providence College initially said Austin was suspended for violating the school’s code of student conduct and declined to share further details with the Providence Journal, citing federal privacy laws. Austin denied wrongdoing and was not charged with a crime. 

Austin was able to transfer to the University of Oregon, where he was again accused of sexual assault, along with other players. Police investigated the claims, and the local district attorney declined to press charges. The university expelled him anyway but raised FERPA when it declined to release records showing what Oregon knew about the allegations, according to the Oregonian.

LeRoy Rooker was the director of the U.S. Education Department office that oversaw FERPA for more than two decades. Rooker, now a senior fellow with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said FERPA is not a confidentiality law – it is focused on education records. And it doesn’t apply when a student is “seeking or intending to enroll” at another college.

Therefore, Rooker said, Kent State could have shared information about Tokosh with Northern Illinois.

Rooker also said FERPA would not have prevented Kent State from telling reporters if other universities had inquired about Tokosh, though they could not have disclosed what they shared.

He blamed the overuse of the law on fear of being sued.

“In this litigious age, institutions get a little wonky about whether they will forward, say, disciplinary records,” Rooker said. “On the other hand, if you have something and you don’t share it when you can and something happens at the next institution, I would say that’s a big liability.”

Backgrounding, especially of social media, falls short

Backgrounding job applicants has become increasingly complex.

While most U.S. employers conduct background screening, according to trade group data, those inquiries typically focus on criminal history. Social media receives far less attention even though that is where people are most likely to share their unguarded thoughts.

In this Facebook post obtained through police records, Joseph Tokosh offers money to students willing to wear "Halloween Makeup." Note: USA TODAY blurred the photo to protect the women's identities.

Undertaking a full review of a person’s social media presence is more difficult than just checking an applicant’s Facebook page.

Does an applicant have an account on X, formerly Twitter? How about an account with Discord, an online platform frequented by gamers, where leaked Pentagon documents were recently shared? Or what about a Telegram account, a messaging platform popular among white nationalists? Further complicating things, it’s common on sites like Reddit for users to adopt usernames and describe experiences with little to no ties to reality.

A little digging, however, can turn up a lot of dirt.  

Tokosh has a LinkedIn page that includes his teaching stints at Northern Illinois University and Nicholls State University. His time as a student and instructor at Kent State is absent.

For LinkedIn, a custom URL includes a play on his name and his chosen field of study: Joeography. Tokosh would later use that moniker in promotional materials for a class at Nicholls State. That is the same handle used on Reddit by someone with a special interest in face paint.

A screenshot of Joseph Tokosh's LinkedIn page in August, which does not list his time on Kent State. The moniker he uses on other social media accounts – "joeography" – appears in a custom url.

One post features a video of Tokosh throwing a pie at someone. Other posts mention a “clown fetish.” In a forum titled “Creepy,” he wrote, “I convince pretty girls to let me paint their faces,” along with a photo with multiple women in white face paint.

That and other similar posts remained live for years until they were taken down after the Nicholls students published their story in late March.

USA TODAY Network reporters captured screenshots before they disappeared. With dates in 2019, the posts feature a young woman wearing a Kent State T-shirt. The material would have been available to administrators at Northern Illinois before the start of the fall 2019 semester.

Joe King, a spokesman for Northern Illinois, said departments hiring new graduate students are “not required to check social media or investigate a disciplinary history.” He added some departments may reach out to the graduate students’ former advisers.

King said he could not determine if the university was aware of Tokosh’s behavior at Kent State. He said that due to FERPA, he could not share specifics about Tokosh’s time at Northern Illinois, including whether students had complained about him.

n this Reddit post, Joseph Tokosh is seen with pies and a customer in a video rental shop. The same woman appeared in a now removed YouTube video tied to Tokosh. Note: The woman's face was blurred by USA TODAY to protect her identity.

But there are signs the behavior continued.

A YouTube account under the name “Joe Tokosh” included at least two videos in 2020 of a man throwing pies at women. One of the videos features a young woman also seen in the screenshots from Tokosh’s Reddit account. 

Comments on one from October 2020 read: “You can have a video of her tied up getting pied via cash app.” That video was viewed more than 30,000 times before it was turned off in late July, around the time a USA TODAY reporter reached out to Tokosh.

A former Northern Illinois State student shared text messages exchanged with Tokosh in which he asked to paint her face on multiple occasions. USA TODAY has agreed not to name her because she is concerned Tokosh might retaliate against her.

In the text messages, Tokosh shared a photo of a young woman in white face paint – an image also posted to the Joeography Reddit account. She said she declined to do it but was aware that other Northern Illinois students had participated.

By fall 2022, when he had moved on to Nicholls, Tokosh revealed to the student that he had required students in his cultural geography class to paint their faces.  

The Northern Illinois student asked Tokosh what he did with the photos, and she said he suggested that he might spin them off into a research project someday. She asked, had anyone complained? She said Tokosh responded: Why would they?

For student journalists, rumors start to take shape

Many students would find a reason to complain, as Nicholls State student journalist Sally-Anne Torres learned firsthand. It started in January when one of her fellow reporters picked up an odd rumor: a professor was offering extra credit for students willing to paint their faces like clowns. Initially, Torres dismissed it because it seemed too unusual and there weren’t a lot of leads to follow. 

By Feb. 7, university administrators informed Tokosh that his contract would not be renewed, according to an email obtained by USA TODAY via a records request. They gave no reason for the nonrenewal, but on Feb. 12, Tokosh emailed his students that the university was letting him go. He blamed his departure on giving too many A’s.

That seemed suspicious to Torres. 

Sally-Anne Torres, the editor-in-chief of the Nicholls Worth – the student newspaper at Nicholls State University – in her campus office. She spoke with six students who told her they were solicited by former professor, Joseph Tokosh.

During her reporting, she received a tip about Tokosh’s Reddit posts in which he wrote of his “clown fetish” and how he enlisted his students to participate in it.

“It wasn’t just this innocent thing that a lot of these girls thought it was,” Torres said. “As a professor or teacher, that is somebody students are supposed to trust. He used his power to ruin that trust and to do these things, and that made me angry for them.”

Torres spoke to six students who shared their experiences with Tokosh. Some, she said, were followed on Twitter by him while others opted into an extra credit assignment he offered.

The women told Torres he sometimes giggled and laughed as they painted their faces in his office.

On March 27, the Nicholls Worth published a story headlined, “Geography professor suspended immediately, students allege sexual harassment.” KNSU TV, a student broadcast network, also aired footage in which Tokosh defended the assignment on camera. That same day, Tokosh submitted his resignation.

Bradley Price said he was required to wear face paint as part of a class taught at Nicholls State by former professor Joseph Tokosh.

The story’s publication prompted other students to come forward about Tokosh and their frustration with the university.

Bradley Price took an online class with Tokosh and said the professor required students to photograph themselves with their faces painted. Price said Tokosh told them the assignment was to help them understand Japanese culture, but then Tokosh offered him bonus points if he could get a female friend to paint her face.

This screenshot is from a now-deleted Twitter account tied to Joseph Tokosh. The woman's picture also appears in a Reddit account associated with Tokosh. Note: USA TODAY blurred the woman's face to protect her identity.

It seemed unusual at the time, Price said, because his friend wasn’t in the class. It became more concerning to him on reading the student newspaper’s report.

“I feel frankly disgusted and disappointed that Nicholls couldn’t do a proper background check on this professor, because this is unacceptable,” Price said. 

Bella Ramos, a junior at Nicholls State who did not take any of Tokosh’s classes, told USA TODAY that someone using the handle @Joeography21 followed her on Twitter in late 2021 and started liking all her selfies.

Ramos learned that the person behind the account was likely a professor at the university. She posted about the behavior in January 2022, but nothing came of it. She also found the Joeography Reddit account. On March 27, the same day the student newspaper published its piece, Ramos posted screenshots of her discoveries on Twitter with the message, “Found a Nicholls state university professor on Reddit.”

“I wish the university had acted sooner because all this information was public on the internet,” she told USA TODAY. 

No one from the university, she said, has ever reached out.

Chris Quintana is an investigative reporter at USA TODAY. He can be reached at [email protected] or via Signal at 202-308-9021.He is on X at @CQuintanaDC. Colin Campo is a reporter for the Houma Courier And Daily Comet. He can be reached at [email protected].