Lawsuit puts spotlight on College's practices concerning sexual assault survivors

by Rachel Pakianathan | 12/10/18 2:51pm

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A $70 million lawsuit alleges that the College and some of its constituent offices, including the Title IX office, failed to properly protect students from sexual harassment and assault by multiple professors.

by Evan Morgan / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

For Emma Rodriguez '20, a trained WISE advocate, Movement Against Violence facilitator and member of the Student and Presidential Committee and the Sexual Violence Prevention Project's student advisory board, the allegations made in the pending sexual harassment class action lawsuit against the College were disturbing, but not surprising.

In the suit, seven women allege that the College ignored years of sexual harassment — and in some cases, assault — against them by three former psychological and brain sciences professors. Dartmouth’s Title IX office failed to protect their privacy by disclosing confidential information and counseling records, and the College’s student health clinic turned away a plaintiff who sought mental health treatment, the women say.

“I think my confidence in Dartmouth institutions was already pretty low,” Rodriguez said. “I know the protocol like the back of my hand and I’m a two-time survivor myself, so I’ve gone through it personally. It is not easy for a survivor to find justice at Dartmouth, and I knew that already.”

For Madeline Omrod ’19, who is a sexual assault peer ally on campus, the lawsuit made it clearer that there is an institutional issue with helping sexual assault survivors at Dartmouth.

Omrod said she has friends who have not felt respected by offices at the College.

“I've had so many friends who … have had isolated incidents where their own wellbeing [was] not considered as much as [that of] the perpetrators,” she said. “I would say [I] probably went from a low level of trust [in Dartmouth institutions] to an even lower level of trust [after the lawsuit was filed].”

Two Title IX coordinators have come and gone since the position was created in 2014. Inaugural coordinator Heather Lindkvist was replaced by Alison O’Connell in 2017. When O’Connell left Dartmouth earlier this year, the current coordinator, Kristi Clemens — formerly the assistant dean of student affairs and director of case management — took her place.

SVPP first-year facilitator and student advisory board member Breanna Sheehan ’20 said the allegations in the lawsuit did not surprise her, especially considering the changing faces in the Title IX office.

“I’ve worked with Kristi Clemens and I think that she’s really fantastic at what she does,” Sheehan said. “But I don’t have experience with the Title IX officer who was there before her, and the experiences that I’ve heard about other people’s interactions with [previous Title IX coordinators were] not particularly positive.”

Alex Conway ’20, another SVPP first-year facilitator who led discussions with first-year floors last fall, said that the lawsuit exposes potential obstacles in the College’s sexual assault reporting processes.

“[The lawsuit] brings to light a real threat that even if you follow all the steps [in reporting sexual violence], you might still encounter barriers if the institution that is set up to help you is actually harming you,” Conway said. “My hope is that we can start to address [the question of] what do you do when the authority figure in the room isn’t doing their job? What sort of alternate routes do you have when one route isn’t working?”

She noted that she was hopeful the lawsuit allegations stem from only a “few bad eggs” in the system — individuals who did not take their job seriously or failed to fulfill their duties. Conway added that while she is not distrustful of the College, she is now more wary, cautious and disappointed following the lawsuit.

For Rodriguez, the pending lawsuit and the allegations against the College’s Title IX office may change her approach to explaining Dartmouth’s sexual violence resources to survivors but would not lead her to advise survivors in favor of or against reporting sexual violence to the Title IX office.

“I would probably attempt to highlight the possible traumas related to reporting, but I would never discourage a survivor from reporting,” she said. “I also may take special care to make sure [survivors of sexual violence] know that what the plaintiffs are bringing up in court is not Dartmouth’s protocol. So if that happens to them, that is not normal, that is not okay and they can take action against it.”

SAPAs at Dartmouth are also trained to be “survivor-centered” in their interactions, with the goal of supporting survivors of sexual assault in making their own decisions about the resources that best fit their individual needs and goals, according to Dick’s House staff counselors and SAPA advisors Alexandra Lenzen and Liz Stahler.

Lenzen and Stahler both said that in the wake of the lawsuit and the national #MeToo movement, future SAPA training will likely put a greater emphasis on abuses of power that occur beyond peer-based relationships, which are typically the focus of conversations about campus sexual violence.

Conway anticipates the lawsuit opening up her conversations with first-years to a broader range of possibilities and situations concerning sexual violence.

“When we talk about prevention and getting out of, trying to avoid or trying to defuse harmful situations, maybe the conversations we have with hypothetical scenarios will expand beyond just basement culture,” Conway said. “Maybe they’ll even reach into the academic realm of mentorship and power dynamics to address student and staff relationships, in addition to just student relationships.”

The SPCSA has been working on a plan, initially focused on foreign study program professors but since expanded to have all Dartmouth faculty and staff trauma-trained for sexual violence, Rodriguez said. According to Rodriguez, most professors do not know about their responsibilities to report to Title IX and are not equipped to handle trauma.

“I think, in light of the lawsuit, there’s going to be more force behind that initiative,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been trying to work on it for a long time and now that there’s some publicity around the issue, I think it will be a little easier. People are paying attention now.”

She added that the national attention created by the lawsuit puts the College in a difficult situation with public relations.

“The administration knows that if they don’t do anything, it’s not good public relations for them,” Rodriguez said. “As disturbing as it is that that’s kind of a necessity, it’s helpful right now for us to get things that really need to change to change, now that the College is listening.”