Over more than a decade, students filed multiple complaints with Dartmouth College administrators alleging sexual harassment and assault by three professors, but nothing was ever done, according to a class action lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court by current and former students.

The seven women each tell a similar story: Three distinguished professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences — Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen — were subjecting graduate students to a gauntlet of sexual harassment that included groping, sexting, alcohol-fueled hot tub parties and even rape.

Dartmouth administrators not only failed to stop the abuse, they retaliated when students reported it, the lawsuit claims.

“That’s one of the biggest problems and that was one of the biggest missteps that allowed the abuse to continue and affect our generation,” said Andrea Courtney, a plaintiff. She enrolled at Dartmouth as a doctoral student in 2012 and worked in Kelley’s lab. “This was an open secret. A lot of this behavior was happening to everyone, and nobody in a position of power stood up to do anything about it.”

Even after several of the women met as a group with Director of Graduate Studies Thalia Wheatley and Department Chairman Dave Bucci in April 2017 to complain about the harassment, administrators did not immediately suspend the men and encouraged the women to continue working with them, according to the lawsuit.

Several of the women filed formal Title IX complaints against Dartmouth days after that meeting.

The school waited until July 28, 2017, to place Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen on administrative leave. During that time, Kelley allegedly raped one of the plaintiffs after plying her with alcohol.

After a lengthy internal investigation — which the lawsuit describes as designed to shield the school — Dartmouth allowed Kelley and Whalen to resign and Heatherton to retire earlier this year.

“As a result of the misconduct we found earlier this year by the three PBS faculty members, we took unprecedented steps toward revoking their tenure and terminating their employment. They are no longer at Dartmouth and remain banned from our campus and from attending all Dartmouth-sponsored events, no matter where the events are held,” college spokesman Diana Lawrence wrote in a statement.

“However, we respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the characterizations of Dartmouth’s actions in the complaint and will respond through our own court filings,” she added.

In addition to $70 million in damages, the seven plaintiffs in the case — Courtney, Annemarie Brown, Kristina Rapuano, Vassiki Chauhan, Sasha Brietzke, Marissa Evans, and another woman who is proceeding anonymously — are requesting that Dartmouth be ordered to institute policies that will prevent similar abuse in the future.

They are represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp, the same firm that represented Chessy Prout in her lawsuit against St. Paul’s School.

The state Attorney General’s office is currently engaged in its own criminal investigation of the conduct in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Courtney and Brown, who spoke to the Union Leader in a telephone interview, said that for many years they each believed they were the only one being subjected to the most extreme harassment.

Courtney studies how social connections contribute to well-being, and Brown researches the way nonverbal communication affects our perceptions of others.

“I left Dartmouth having had my own incredibly debilitating experience there, but I assumed it was just me. The men who were involved in perpetuating these events were incredibly good at what they did,” said Brown, who worked as a graduate student in Whalen’s lab from 2010 to 2015, before being hired as an adjunct professor in 2017.

“We were forced into a code of silence,” she said.

During her first term working with Whalen, the professor told Brown that a previous student who filed a complaint had been “iced out” of the field and “got what was coming to her,” she said. Even so, she didn’t anticipate the pervasive culture of harassment she would find in the department, which the lawsuit describes as a “21st Century Animal House.”

The professors bragged about how “hot” their students were and displayed bias in hiring only young women they found attractive, according to the suit, which also claims the men regularly talked about their genitals, pressured female students to get dangerously drunk with them, sent lewd pictures, and then declined to meet with students for academic guidance if the women refused the advances.

Once, following a Super Bowl party, Whalen groped Brown’s buttocks and winked at her while they were standing next to his wife, according to the lawsuit.

Courtney claims that, among other unwanted attention, Whalen talked to her about the shape of her breasts and once grabbed her face and and said “you are the prettiest girl in the room.”

Multiple plaintiffs also said the professors made public comments about their breasts and which women they would have sex with. They pressured students to drink during weekdays and while at conferences, often at the detriment of their academic work. Two of the women said the professors forced them to have sex against their will.

When the women pushed back against the harassment, Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen allegedly retaliated against them. Rapuano, who claims that Kelley sexually assaulted her after pressuring her to drink so much she could not consent, said that he continued to send her explicit messages and tried to torpedo her academic progress when she told him she wanted to keep their relationship strictly professional.

Graduate advisers in the department had “essentially complete, unilateral control” over their students, Brown said, adding that Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen were powerful men in their fields and wielded substantial power over the students’ careers.

Dartmouth administrators received complaints about the men as early as 2002, according to the lawsuit. The women say part of the reason it was able to persist for so long — in addition to administrators turning a blind eye — was that the victims felt like they were alone and without options.

The harassment grew worse over the years, the women said.

Then in March 2017, while several of the professors and students attended a conference, Heatherton groped Brietzke during a karaoke night and asked her what she “was going to be doing later that night,” according to the lawsuit.

Several other students witnessed the incident and it began a conversation in which they discovered how ubiquitous the harassment had become. The revelation eventually led to the filing of the Title IX complaint, the ongoing criminal investigation, and the resignation and retirement of the three professors.

“The burden shouldn’t be on victims to request this type of change,” Courtney said. “But we, as a group and individuals, feel an obligation to do this for future women scientists. This behavior is intolerable and it can’t be allowed to continue to happen.”

tfeathers@unionleader.com