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Spencer Rendahl: Class Action Lessons

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl
Dartmouth College is out of session for the holidays, but news of a class action lawsuit over how the school handled sexual misconduct complaints is still attracting the attention of those remaining on campus.

Seven women – current and former students – have filed a class action lawsuit for seventy million dollars in damages against Dartmouth College for sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination. They claim the college did not take appropriate action regarding complaints against three professors in the psychological and brain sciences department. Complaints first surfaced in April 2017, and by October of that year, the college had hired an outside investigator. This July, President Phil Hanlon, himself a 1977 graduate, announced that the college had severed ties with all three professors and barred them from all on and off-campus college events. But the lawsuit, filed in Federal Court in New Hampshire, alleges that the college ignored complaints for sixteen years, which allowed abuse to continue.

First, it states that at least two sexual harassment complaints were made against one of the alleged abusers in 2002; and that he was actually promoted instead of reprimanded. It also states that after a group of women approached the college with their accusations in April 2017, the college encouraged the women to continue working with the same people they claimed were harassing them. In addition, the lawsuit alleges that during the period between when the women approached the college and when the college took action in October, another assault took place.

A November 15 email from President Hanlon to the Dartmouth community about the lawsuit praised the women for their bravery in coming forward but stated that “we respectfully, but strongly disagree with the characterizations of Dartmouth’s actions in the complaint and will respond with our own court filings.”

Any institution can have employees that commit sexual assault or harassment, and Dartmouth can't necessarily be blamed for the actions of three rogue professors if it knew nothing about the behavior. But how it responded to complaints matters, and this lawsuit will give the public a chance to see if the college can serve as a model for how to handle sexual misconduct claims - or instead be seen as providing a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

As an alumna and recipient of numerous fundraising solicitations from the college, I’m especially interested.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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