CONCORD -- Nine former Dartmouth psychology students have settled a lawsuit with the college. The suit alleged three professors harassed and assaulted students, and the college did little to intervene. The $14 million settlement was announced Tuesday.
The students — Kristina Rapuano, Vassiki Chauhan, Sasha Brietzke, Annemarie Brown, Andrea Courtney, Marissa Evans, and three women identified as Jane Doe, Jane Doe 2 and Jane Doe 3 — were all students in the department of psychology and brain studies. In a lawsuit filed in November 2018, they alleged they faced a wall of demeaning comments and unprofessional discussions about their personal lives from three former professors, Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen.
Heatherton retired, and Kelley and Whalen resigned in July 2018. Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon said in a statement the three will never be allowed back on campus.
“I cannot express strongly enough my deep disappointment that these individuals violated their positions of trust to these, and other, students and members of our community,” Hanlon said in a statement. “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 is about a fifth of the $70 million in damages the nine plaintiffs initially sought.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in November 2018, said the women felt pressure to flirt and have sex with the professors who controlled their studies and held power over their careers.
The professors made it clear the students would face academic and professional retaliation if they did not respond to their come-ons, the complaint stated. The department was characterized by pressure to drink heavily, lewd discussions about students’ bodies and sex lives, and boundary-crossing gatherings such as hot tub parties at the home of one of the professors.
If students declined to participate, the complaint said the professors withheld academic advising and support. Two students said two of the professors pressured them to drink to excess, and then sexually assaulted them.
The complaint says the students were profoundly affected by the harassment and assaults, both in terms of their careers and their mental health. Two of the plaintiffs attempted suicide, the complaint said.
The complaint called the psychology department a “21st-century Animal House” and a “Predators’ Club.” Students had been complaining about the professors’ lewd behavior since at least 2002, the complaint said, when three students said Heatherton groped them. Heatherton denied he was inappropriate with any students, and said he meant the groping to be funny, not sexual. Kelley and Whalen did not respond publicly to the allegations against them.
In 2017, several women banded together to report the professors’ behavior to Dartmouth’s Title IX officer, who tracks discrimination allegations and oversees investigations. The lawsuit said the college hired an investigator to look into their claims. The investigator demanded the students turn over emails, phone records, even medical records, and then showed those documents to the accused professors and their attorneys.
The professors were put on leave, but the complaint alleged that Heatherton retired and Kelley and Whalen resigned before the investigation was finished. In a statement issued Tuesday, Hanlon said the college stripped the three professors of tenure protections.
The plaintiffs said in their complaint that Dartmouth retaliated against them for speaking up about the harassment. One student said the college failed her honors thesis, though professors had recommended she pass, and tried to bring down her grade point average. Another said the college forced her to transfer to another lab where she was to work on projects that had little to do with her background, and then expelled her with little warning.
In earlier statements, Hanlon said he thought the college’s response to the students’ allegations was appropriate.
The settlement will define a “settlement class” of Dartmouth students who certify that they endured a hostile environment created by Heatherton, Kelley and Whalen. Those students will be able to apply for a portion of the settlement money.
The “settlement class” has yet to be defined, and it is not yet clear when other victims will be able to apply for settlement money. Attorney Chuck Douglas of Concord, New Hampshire counsel to the plaintiffs, said no date had yet been set by the court.
The settlement calls for the college to fund programs to find and fix current problems of discrimination and harassment and prevent future abuse.
A judge will have to accept the settlement agreement and set a schedule to implement the settlement.
The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office opened a criminal investigation into the allegations against the three professors in October 2017. The matter is pending review, said spokeswoman Kate Spiner.