Former Dartmouth Students Accuse School of Failing to Protect Them from Sexual Assault

By LUCY TOWNEND

Seven women have filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Dartmouth College allowed sexual misconduct by three former professors to continue for over a decade. The $70 million lawsuit, filed in the state on New Hampshire on Nov. 15, involved actions by professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.  The plaintiffs argue that professors perpetrated a culture that resembled a “21st Century Animal House.”

Professors are accused of inviting students to late-night hot tub parties at private residences, holding lab meetings at bars and encouraging an atmosphere of heavy drinking. These actions were accompanied by numerous allegations of sexual advances by the three professors towards graduate students who depended upon the professors’ academic support.

I don’t know if the administration buried the accusations, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. And that’s deeply troubling.”

— ROGER DAI '20

According to The Washington Post, Kristina Rapuano, one of the plaintiffs, claims that Whalen sent her a text message one night telling her to come back to his office. Once she arrived, he allegedly turned off the lights and began touching her.

Plaintiffs argue that this was an open secret in the college, in the town of Hanover, and at conferences, and that these three professors had an established reputation as predators. Dartmouth officials released a statement saying they “applaud the courage” displayed by the women who came forward, but asserting that the college disagrees “with the characterizations of Dartmouth’s actions in the complaint”

Middlebury’s current sexual assault policy claims that the college “will take reasonable, prompt and appropriate action” in the event of sexual misconduct. This sexual misconduct is defined as “sexual assault, domestic and dating violence and misconduct, stalking and related retaliation.” Discipline for employees, based on the severity of the actions, includes “discipline for employees such as written reprimands, salary freezes (faculty) or termination of employment.” A criminal investigation may be opened at the complainant’s discretion. 

Dartmouth claims adherence to a similar policy, and writes that they are “committed to the safety and wellbeing of every member of our community.” However, the alleged disregard of sexual assault claims on Dartmouth’s campus would speak otherwise. 

“I don’t know if the administration buried the accusations, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. And that’s deeply troubling,” said Roger Dai ’20, a Middlebury student currently spending a year at Dartmouth. 

At the annual Cognitive Neuroscience Society conference in March 2015, Rapuano claims that Kelley raped her after a night of drinking, the New York Times reported. The morning after, Kelley told Rapuano that they had had sex two times, after which Rapuano began panicking. Rapuano has no recollection of leaving the bar.

Rapuano, among others, attempted to gain distance from Kelley by engaging in a fellowship overseas. She says that Kelley started punishing her academically for refusing his advances. Annemarie Brown also claims that Kelley reacted in the same way regarding her advising. Andrea Courtney similarly recounts that Whalen abandoned advising her after she tried to distance herself from him.

The first complaint against one of the three professors, Heatherton, was filed in 2002. The lawsuit alleges that the college has continued to ignore complaints for almost sixteen years.

A months-long Title IX investigation began in 2017 after several complaints were lodged against the professors. Dartmouth allegedly told women who launched complaints to continue to work for the professors for the next four months, warning the women that academic retaliation may result from refusing the professors. In that time, graduate student Vassiki Chaahan, a plaintiff, was sexually assaulted.

In October 2018, a criminal investigation was opened by the New Hampshire Attorney General and is still ongoing.

As the Title IX investigation progressed, Dartmouth instigated the rarely-used process required to fire tenured professors. Before this was put into effect, however, Whalen and Kelley resigned, and Heatherton retired. The three professors are now banned from Dartmouth’s campus and any Dartmouth-sponsored events, and cannot be rehired by the university.

Heatherton’s attorney has denied involvement in the scandal, claiming that the plaintiffs were not his students and were only involved with the other two professors. Heatherton did not participate in any of the parties and did not drink with underage students, he claims, and Heatherton’s lab meetings did not involve alcohol.

The New York Times reported that Sasha Brietzke, one of the plaintiffs, claims that Heatherton pulled her onto his lap at a conference in March 2017 during a karaoke night and asked her about her plans for the night. Brietzke immediately left the establishment in shock.

Heatherton publicly apologized for touching a graduate student while intoxicated in 2017, claiming that the act was not sexual. He also maintains that any hiring for labs was done by a female assistant, focusing on skills and experience instead of appearance.

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Former Dartmouth Students Accuse School of Failing to Protect Them from Sexual Assault