Dartmouth argues it acted promptly to investigate sexual misconduct claims

Posted January 16th, 2019.

As It Appeared On
Boston Globe

By Deirdre Fernandes GLOBE STAFF

In a staunch and lengthy legal defense, Dartmouth College on Tuesday reiterated that it took unprecedented steps to deal with three former psychology professors accused of sexual misconduct, and it denied allegations that administrators fostered an inappropriate and unsafe culture.

Dartmouth responded late on Tuesday to a federal class-action lawsuit filed last fall by current and former students alleging that the school failed to protect them and others from sexual assault and harassment. The students are seeking $70 million in damages.

“Dartmouth had no knowledge of the misconduct that the students reported in April 2017 until they came forward,” said Justin Anderson, a spokesman for the college. “Contrary to the allegations in the lawsuit, upon learning of the students’ concerns, Dartmouth promptly conducted a rigorous and objective review.”

In an 85-page filing, Dartmouth said administrators took the students’ concerns seriously and began investigating immediately. Any delays in the investigation were due to students initially requesting anonymity, a thorough investigation process, and a need to abide by the college’s disciplinary rules, Dartmouth said in its filing.

Dartmouth in court documents also noted that some specific allegations in the women’s lawsuit varies “markedly” from what they said during the college’s Title IX investigation into sexual misconduct.

According to seven female students who filed the lawsuit, their professors — Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen, and Bill Kelley — groped female students, hosted drinking and hot-tub parties with students, openly debated who had the “hottest lab,” and sexually assaulted students they were supposed to be training.

“These professors leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated, and even raped female students,” the plaintiffs allege.

Deborah Marcuse, the lead counsel, for the women, said Tuesday night the college’s answer “includes a laundry list of crucial admissions.” She added, “Dartmouth considers itself blameless. A jury will certainly take a different view.”

All three professors left Dartmouth last year after the college conducted a months-long investigation. Heatherton retired; Whalen and Kelley resigned.

In court documents, Dartmouth offered new details about how it handled past complaints against the three professors and the most recent allegations. While the college acknowledged it did receive complaints over the past decade about Heatherton inappropriately touching students and Whalen pushing students to drink with him, those were “isolated” cases and administrators believed they had warned the professors and addressed the issue, Dartmouth said in documents.

Only after the students complained and the college launched an investigation, did “Dartmouth’s decision-makers now understand that an unacceptable environment involving excess alcohol consumption, an inappropriate level of fraternization, and inappropriate personal comments and contact” existed between the professors and some students, court documents said.

The case has drawn widespread attention to Dartmouth, and the New Hampshire attorney general’s office is conducting a criminal probe into the alleged misconduct. In court filings, Dartmouth said it would leave it up to the courts to determine whether the professors violated any laws.

But in its filings, Dartmouth said that some facts around the allegations that students were sexually assaulted are in dispute.

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