Dartmouth College settles sexual misconduct lawsuit

  • FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2018 file photo, from left back row, Annemarie Brown, Andrea Courtney, and Marissa Evansin, and from left front row, Sasha Brietzke, Vassiki Chauhan, Kristina Rapuano, pose in New York. The women filed a lawsuit against Dartmouth College for allegedly allowing three professors to create a culture in their department that encouraged drunken parties and subjected female graduate students to harassment, groping and sexual assault. A growing number of former students are demanding answers from the administration and questioning how such an atmosphere apparently flourished for at least 15 years at the Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) Mary Altaffer

  • FILE - In this May 22, 2018 file photo, pedestrians pass the Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Six women have filed a lawsuit against Dartmouth College for allegedly allowing three professors to create a culture in their department that encouraged drunken parties and subjected female graduate students to harassment, groping and sexual assault. There is growing anger among Dartmouth College alumni following allegations in the lawsuit that three professors harassed and abused female students in their department for years without being sanctioned. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) Charles Krupa

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2019 10:50:24 AM
Modified: 8/6/2019 7:34:07 PM

HANOVER — Dartmouth College has settled with nine female current and former students and researchers who filed a class-action lawsuit alleging college administrators turned a blind eye to sexual misconduct by three professors.

The settlement, which the college announced in a communitywide email on Tuesday, includes $14 million for the class of plaintiffs, which is defined as all students who meet certain criteria and who certify that they endured a hostile environment created by the conduct of the former professors, who worked in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

The plaintiffs released a statement celebrating the settlement deal, which includes not just financial restitution but Dartmouth-funded efforts to prevent similar misconduct in the future.

“We are satisfied to have reached an agreement with Dartmouth College, and are encouraged by our humble contribution to bringing restorative justice to a body of Dartmouth students beyond the named plaintiffs,” plaintiffs Kristina Rapuano, Vassiki Chauhan, Sasha Brietzke, Annemarie Brown, Andrea Courtney, Marissa Evans, Jane Doe, Jane Doe 2 and Jane Doe 3 said Tuesday.

“... Together with Dartmouth, we plan to continue addressing the systemic roots of power-based personal violence and gender-based discrimination across all levels of severity so that our experiences — and those of the class we represent — are never repeated.”

The college and the plaintiffs entered mediation in late July with assistance from retired New Hampshire Superior Court Judge Robert Morrill. Seven plaintiffs initially filed the lawsuit last November. Two more joined the suit this spring.

Two of the professors, Paul Whalen and Bill Kelley, resigned last summer, and the third, Todd Heatherton, retired, after internal Dartmouth reviews recommended that all three be terminated. Efforts to reach the three men and their attorneys Tuesday were unsuccessful.

A criminal investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct by the professors is “pending review” by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, spokeswoman Kate Spiner said in an email Tuesday.

In the college’s announcement, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon thanked the women who “courageously came forward alongside other students to bring to my administration’s attention a toxic environment created by three former tenured professors, who will never set foot on this campus again. ... Through this process, we have learned lessons that we believe will enable us to root out this behavior immediately if it ever threatens our campus community again.”

The settlement, which is due in U.S. District Court in Concord by Aug. 20 and will subject to the court’s approval, also includes specific Dartmouth-funded initiatives under the effort known as the Campus Climate and Culture Initiative.

Those projects, according to an email from Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson, include an expansion of a diversity recruitment fund; a way for the plaintiffs to weigh in on the initiative such as how to solicit input from a broad cross-section of the community; and, as necessary, an expansion of Dartmouth’s partnership with WISE, a Lebanon-based nonprofit that provides support for survivors of gender-based violence and has an office on Dartmouth’s campus.

The ability to negotiate non-financial issues is a feature of a mediated settlement, said Eric MacLeish, a Boston-based attorney who has represented victims of clerical abuse and litigated against several private schools. When cases go to trial, the awards are purely financial, he said.

That said, MacLeish said $14 million is not a small penalty and should serve as an “incentive not to let anything like this happen again.”

In general, MacLeish said he favors mediated resolutions to such cases because they limit the trauma that victims may face when they have to describe their experiences in court.

“I’m really glad that a resolution has been reached,” MacLeish said. “... Everybody needs to move on.”

Chauhan, who is still a graduate student in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department, known as PBS, and who alleged in the suit that she was sexually assaulted by Whalen, said in a tweet Tuesday that she and the other plaintiffs believe that the Dartmouth community is resilient.

“Litigation reduces the world to winners and losers, but coming together as a community can be healing,” she wrote.

The advocacy group Dartmouth Against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence wrote in an emailed statement that its members, which include students and alumni, welcome the settlement and hope that it ushers in change at Dartmouth.

But the group, which formed late last year in response to the lawsuit, said that there is still more work to be done for Dartmouth to regain the community’s trust. The group called for the college to take “full responsibility for the abuses that occurred in PBS.”

The group continues to have questions for administrators about how the professors’ alleged actions were allowed to continue for years and how the school’s community has been affected; and it seeks to have the school acknowledge its “misguided tactic” of opposing the use of pseudonyms for three of the nine plaintiffs’ in the case.

“The College must also acknowledge that the reparations it owes its community extend beyond the lawsuit and settlement, and are long overdue,” the group’s statement said.

Though the plaintiffs acknowledged that the work will continue, Brietzke — like Chauhan — also took to Twitter to celebrate on Tuesday.

“Progress *is* achievable,” wrote Brietzke, who also is still a graduate student in the department and who alleged in the lawsuit that one of the professors touched her inappropriately. “It is so easy to get absorbed in cynical thinking. It is so easy to convince yourself to do nothing. But that’s what institutions bank on to stop from changing. We have to force them to engage.  Through conflict, incremental change occurs.”

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

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