Caramichael: Dartmouth Believes Survivors, Unless They're a Threat

Dartmouth “applauds the courage” of survivors while denying their allegations.

by John Caramichael | 1/31/19 2:00am

 Updated Jan. 31, 2019 at 1:44 p.m.

In November 2018, seven women — former and current students — in Dartmouth’s psychological and brain sciences department filed a $70 million class action against the College. The lawsuit alleged under Title IX that Dartmouth failed to protect its students from sexual harassment and assault, detailing horrifying patterns of abuse by Dartmouth professors. In January, the College filed its response.

As required by law, Dartmouth had to admit or deny every allegation made by the plaintiffs. Predictably, the College stated that it “lacks knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief about the truth of” many allegations, the legal equivalent of saying “we don’t know.” 

This is actually understandable. Dartmouth doesn’t know everything about the lawsuit’s allegations. Some allegations have no witnesses, and others have little evidence.

But disturbingly, Dartmouth is going out of its way to deny or minimize some of the plaintiffs’ allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Instead of choosing to say “we don’t know” to some of the allegations, Dartmouth explicitly denies them, presumably because the school is exposed to liability. 

Dartmouth denies that for “well over a decade, [the plaintiffs] have been treated as sex objects by [the former professors].” It denies receiving complaints about “pervasive sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination...since at least 2002.” It denies the professors demonstrated an “obvious bias” to hiring “young, attractive female students” for their labs. It denies the PBS department had a “party culture.” It denies female students who didn’t drink with professors were “neglected academically.” Dartmouth even denies that three past allegations of groping against one professor could have indicated that future sexual assaults might occur.

These denials are both unsettling and ridiculous. Dartmouth denies the students being treated like “sex objects” or receiving sexual harassment complaints in 2002, despite admitting that faculty members were told that former professor Todd Heatherton had groped a female student’s breast. At one point, the school admits that two other students had alleged Heatherton groped their buttocks, but then states that it does not understand the acts “to have been sexual in nature,” despite the incident allegedly being reported directly to the chair of the department.

There are so many problems with the College’s filing that it’s hard to know where to start. Dartmouth goes out of its way to repeatedly describe Heatherton’s 2002-03 alleged gropings as “few,” “isolated” and "old," as if they therefore matter less. While it’s true the statute of limitations in New Hampshire is no more than six years for the sexual assault of adults, depending on the severity, the trauma of assault can follow survivors for decades, sometimes their entire lives. The filing also bizarrely asserts past assaults did not indicate Heatherton might commit future acts of sexual assault, which is patently absurd and beyond frustrating, edging into the territory of excusatory statements like “boys will be boys.” 

By the end of the filing, the message is clear — Dartmouth believes survivors, unless they’re a threat. If an allegation could leave the College liable, the school outright denies it, often with no evidence and in defiance of basic logic. In two cases, the school acknowledges allegations of sexual assault, but in the next sentence says that the College "does not understand [these acts] to be sexual or to have been perceived by the male or female student as sexual.”

At the beginning of the court filing, the College went out of its way to “applaud” the courage of the seven women who came forward. But consider this: Why does it take courage to come forward? From the court filing, we’ve learned one reason — because coming forward means being crushed. And with regards to Dartmouth’s persistent “we didn’t know,” my response is this — it’s your job to know. If professors are groping their students, snorting “real cocaine” in the classroom, sending students pictures of their genitals, and taking them to conferences to deliberately get them drunk and assault them, it’s your job to know. 

Caramichael is a member of the Class of 2020.

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Correction appended (Jan. 31, 2019): This article has been updated to reflect a more accurate  range of the statute of limitations for various forms of sexual assault.