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Dartmouth College Disputes ‘Party Culture’ in Response to Lawsuit

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    Dartmouth College Title IX Coordinator Kristi Clemens speaks during Executive Vice President Rick Mills' "Town Hall" series about the new "campus climate and culture initiative" at Spaulding Auditorium in Hanover, N.H., Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. The initiative includes mandatory online training for prevention of sexual violence for faculty, staff and post-doctoral students. The steps by the college were announced following the ouster of three tenured professors accused of sexual misconduct by several current and former students in the Department of Psychological and Brain Science. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

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    Dartmouth College Title IX Coordinator Kristi Clemens talked with Vice President of Alumni Cheryl Bascomb, right, and Executive Vice President Rick Mills, left, before one of Mills' "Town Hall Meeting" presentations at Spaulding Auditorium in Hanover, N.H., Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. Clemens was scheduled to speak about the college's new online sexual violence training before a presentation by Bascomb and English professor Donald Pease on Dartmouth's upcoming 250th anniversary celebrations. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2019 3:05:24 PM
Modified: 1/16/2019 11:02:17 PM

Hanover — Dartmouth College denies that its leaders knew about and tolerated sexual misconduct perpetrated by three former professors in its Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences as a $70 million federal class-action lawsuit has alleged.

The denials, contained in a response to the November suit brought by seven current and former female students in the department, came in Dartmouth’s response filed on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Concord.

“Dartmouth specifically denies that the Department had a ‘party culture’ and that any such practice was ‘well-known and blatantly ignored by Dartmouth administrators,’ ” the college wrote in its response.

The 85-page document outlines Dartmouth’s timeline of when the plaintiffs informed the college of their allegations — which included complaints related to leering, sexting, groping, intoxicating and even raping female students — and the steps taken to address these allegations.

The three former professors — Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen and Bill Kelley — all left the college last summer, either retiring or resigning before the college could fire them following internal investigations, which resulted in recommendations that they be terminated.

“Professor Heatherton categorically denies playing any role in creating a toxic environment at Dartmouth College. ... (He) is extremely concerned about being grouped together with the other professors. He did not engage in the general patterns of conduct of which they are accused,” Heatherton’s attorney, Julie Moore, said in a statement.

Whalen and Kelley could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

A criminal investigation into their actions, launched by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office in October 2017, remains ongoing, Senior Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward said in an email on Wednesday.

The college acknowledges that the former professors “engaged in improper conduct” that likely included inappropriate touching and texting, though it denies that college administrators knew about the professors’ alleged misbehavior for more than 16 years, as the plaintiffs allege. Instead, the college says administrators acted to address “isolated and remote incidents of alleged misconduct” when they were reported.

For example, when a graduate student told a faculty member that Heatherton had groped a student’s breasts at a social event in 2002, the college said in Tuesday’s filing that the dean of faculty reprimanded Heatherton for doing so and that he was “counseled as to the strong adverse results if the conduct were repeated.”

Moore, Heatherton’s attorney, said in a statement that Heatherton’s touching of this graduate student in 2002 was accidental and as Dartmouth stated in its response to the lawsuit, the student declined to file a complaint.

During the 2009-10 school year, when the college says a student reported that Whalen was holding lab meetings in a bar, the department’s chairman reprimanded Whalen, believing “that the practice stopped after that, as there was no further report regarding such meetings.”

Additionally, the college denies that administrators were aware of the pervasiveness of this behavior prior to when it was reported to them by students in April 2017.

Though the college acknowledges that its investigator “credited” one of the plaintiff’s allegations that she — Vassiki Chauhan — was sexually assaulted by Whalen after the students first came forward to administrators in April 2017, it denies that this was allowed to happen due to delays in the investigation on the college’s part. Dartmouth also says that “many facts regarding the alleged sexual assault are disputed, both by former professor Whalen and by another woman who was present and participating in the event.”

Instead, the college attributes delays related to the time it took from when several students first complained in April 2017 to when it first put the professors on leave in July 2017 to the plaintiffs’ desire that the professors not be informed of their complaints until after a June “standings meeting,” at which faculty members discuss graduate students’ progress.

In its response, the college also emphasized the steps it took to investigate the alleged behaviors of the now-former professors, as well as its broader work to shift the culture on campus.

Earlier this month, Dartmouth launched a “campus climate and culture initiative,” which aims to “create a learning environment free from sexual harassment and the abuse of power,” according to the college’s response, which references the initiative several times.

The initiative includes a mandatory online Title IX training for all Dartmouth faculty, staff and post-doctoral researchers. When Rick Mills, Dartmouth’s executive vice president, asked the approximately 100 people gathered in Spaulding Auditorium for a “town hall” meeting on Wednesday to raise their hands if they had completed the training — since an email went out alerting them to it last week — the majority did so.

Of the 6,600 people asked to complete the training, about 20 percent have so far, Kristi Clemens, the college’s Title IX coordinator, said at Wednesday’s town hall. Beginning on Monday, alerts will go out every two weeks to remind those who have not yet completed it to do so, she said.

The training, “Bridges: Building a Supportive Community,” takes about 45 minutes or an hour to complete and aims to help clarify how and when incidents of sexual misconduct ought to be reported, Clemens said.

Additionally, Clemens said, the college is in the midst of updating its policies and procedures related to misconduct so that one policy applies to the entire institution.

“It makes much more sense to have one policy that very clearly states what everybody is responsible for abiding by,” Clemens said.

Despite the college’s investigation and the professors’ subsequent departures, the plaintiffs in the case say the college ought to have done more to protect students and to change the culture at Dartmouth.

“Dartmouth’s 85-page answer includes a laundry list of crucial admissions: that complaints about inappropriate conduct by (Psychological and Brain Sciences) professors spanned more than a decade; that the college considered them ‘isolated’ incidents and chose to address them in isolation; and that high-level administrators knew about inappropriate conduct by the professors,” Deborah Marcuse, a Baltimore-based partner of the firm Sanford Heisler Sharp, who is serving as lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the case, said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

“Even now, faced with the reality of a toxic environment Dartmouth fostered for multiple generations of female students, Dartmouth considers itself blameless,” she said. “A jury will certainly take a different view.”

Similarly, a group of alumni, graduate students and undergraduates calling itself the Dartmouth Community Against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence, which in December submitted an open letter signed by 800 people to Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon and the college’s board of trustees in support of the plaintiffs in the class-action suit, said in an emailed statement on Wednesday that the college seems to have missed an opportunity to make amends.

“The community cannot move forward without a platform of institutional accountability and the recognition of current and former victims and survivors,” said the group, which has about 70 active members. “The college’s response to the lawsuit reinforces our commitment to helping build a new campus culture of transparency and advocacy. We stand, as always, in solidarity with the plaintiffs in Rapuano et al. v. Dartmouth College, and with  all survivors of gender harassment and sexual violence at Dart mouth.”

Mills, at the town hall meeting, sought the audience’s assistance in creating change at Dartmouth.

“This isn’t going to be an overnight change,” he said. “... If something’s not working, let us know.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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