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Jim Kenyon: Lawsuit shows problems with sex assault probes and race at Dartmouth

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/20/2021 10:00:58 PM
Modified: 2/20/2021 10:00:56 PM

After receiving a complaint from a female student that she was sexually assaulted by a football player in her dorm room during Winter Carnival weekend last February, Dartmouth College quickly opened an investigation.

From both a legal and ethical standpoint, Dartmouth was right to respond promptly. Far too often on college campuses across the country, allegations of sexual misconduct aren’t taken seriously or are covered up, particularly in cases involving student-athletes.

So why does Dartmouth’s handling (or mishandling, depending on your point of view) of this case raise red flags?

The accused student is Black, and the investigation reeks of racial bias — so much so the NAACP has weighed in. But at a predominantly white college, where only 6% of the 4,200 undergraduates are Black, maybe that goes with the territory.

In September, Dartmouth suspended the accused for two years for violating the college’s sexual misconduct policy. I suppose Dartmouth administrators could argue that they were at least willing to give the male student a second chance by allowing him to eventually complete his Ivy League education. But it’s nevertheless likely to prove damaging when he applies to graduate schools and interviews for jobs.

From the outset, it appears to me that Dartmouth — despite its wealth and resources — failed in its obligation to consider racial bias in its investigation.

The female attorney hired by the college to investigate the matter? Dartmouth’s Title IX Coordinator, Kristi Clemens, whose office oversaw the investigation? The college’s associate general counsel, Dana Scaduto, who had a hand in the case? Dean of the College, Kathryn Lively, who denied the Black student’s appeal? They’re all white.

And the kicker: The three Dartmouth administrators who were originally appointed to act as the jury in the case were all white as well.

It was only after the Black student questioned the panel’s lack of racial diversity that the college acknowledged he might have a point. “We do not have anyone who I am aware identifies as African American available to serve on this hearing panel,” Clemens responded in an email to the accused in September.

Dartmouth’s remedy? It replaced the panel’s white male administrator with a male administrator of color — but not a Black person. Call me a skeptic, but I have a hard time believing that low- and mid-level administrators whose paychecks are signed by the college are going to be eager to reject the findings of Dartmouth’s retained investigator.

The investigations are governed by Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights law. Under President Obama, the federal government put colleges on notice that they needed to beef up their investigations into sexual misconduct or face losing some funding.

The Trump administration followed up with a new set of rules that bolstered due-process protections for accused students. In recent years, dozens of students have won court cases against their colleges for violating their rights under Obama-era rules, The New York Times reported in 2020.

Last month, the Black student-athlete in this column filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Concord, alleging that Dartmouth’s “improper, inadequate, and biased investigation and hearing process” amounted to racial and gender discrimination.

The lawsuit also claims this case isn’t a first for Dartmouth. Since 2005, Dartmouth has suspended or expelled at least eight other Black football players following Title IX proceedings, the suit alleges. During that same time, no Title IX investigations were initiated against any white football players.

On Thursday, Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence told me in an email that “we dispute the allegations in the complaint and we will provide our responses in court.”

Amy Spencer, an attorney with the Concord-based law firm, Shaheen & Gordon, is representing the Dartmouth student-athlete. Citing privacy concerns, the suit doesn’t name either of the students involved. The female student’s race is also not mentioned.

According to the lawsuit:

The two students became friends after they arrived at Dartmouth in the fall of 2018. As first-year students, they engaged “consensual sexual activity,” at least three times, but stopped before having intercourse.

On Feb. 9, 2020, at about 1:30 a.m., the woman called the Black student, who was asleep in his room. The woman had consumed a “significant volume of alcohol” at a campus party and couldn’t remember where she lived, according to the students.

The football player, who stands more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 250 pounds, met her on the street and helped her back to her dorm room.

What transpired is disputed, but at some point, the male student took off his jacket. According to the lawsuit, Dartmouth’s investigator made several references in her report that the Black male was shirtless under his jacket “without referencing the undisputed fact that he was sleeping when (the woman) called, and typically sleeps without a shirt as many men do.”

The lawsuit argues that “many of the inferences the investigator drew from the evidence were based on this underlying biased and stereotypical view of (the accused) as an aggressive, hypersexual Black male, and Black male athlete more specifically.”

In a statement included in a Shaheen & Gordon media release, the New England chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the allegations against Dartmouth “appear to involve a college process that seems in direct contradiction to the NAACP’s work of eradicating systematic racism in all sectors of society, including academia.”

I don’t presume to know what happened that night. But the point is how Dartmouth handled the case over the following months and whether Black students of any gender can count on racially sensitive investigations that are fair and impartial.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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