Metro

Dartmouth students sue over alleged sexual assault by professors

Left to right, Annemarie Brown, Sasha Brietzke, Andrea Courtney, Kristina Rapuano, Marissa Evans, and Vassiki Chauhan.
Jennifer S. Altman For The Boston Globe
Left to right, Annemarie Brown, Sasha Brietzke, Andrea Courtney, Kristina Rapuano, Marissa Evans, and Vassiki Chauhan.

To the scientific community, Dartmouth College’s psychology and brain sciences department was a powerhouse, equipped with the latest technology and celebrated professors producing headline-grabbing research.

But it was also a “21st-century Animal House” where three former neuroscience professors groped female students in plain sight, hosted drinking and hot-tub parties with students, openly debated who had the “hottest lab,” and sexually assaulted graduate students, according to a class-action lawsuit filed against Dartmouth on Thursday.

For years Dartmouth did little to rein in the professors — two of whom resigned and one who retired earlier this year — and failed to protect students, according to the suit, filed by seven current and former students in New Hampshire federal District Court.

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The suit for the first time details the specific sexual misconduct allegations that thrust Dartmouth into the spotlight last fall, triggered a criminal investigation by the New Hampshire attorney general’s office, and led to the removal of the professors, Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen, and Bill Kelley.

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The complaint describes a party culture where influential professors exercised tremendous control over their students’ academic careers, delaying exams, withholding advisory meetings, and threatening the research and funding of women who shunned their advances. The professors conducted lab meetings at bars, and Kelley “invited undergraduate students to use real cocaine during classes related to addiction as part of a ‘demonstration,’ ” the lawsuit and students allege.

Dartmouth, an Ivy League college in Hanover, N.H., had received at least three previous sexual harassment complaints against Heatherton starting in 2002 and at least one against Kelley in 2005, and should have taken action long before the recent group of students complained, according to the lawsuit. The students are seeking $70 million in damages.

“Dartmouth’s conduct was wanton, malicious, outrageous, and conducted with full knowledge of the law,” according to the suit. “Dartmouth exhibited reckless indifference to the foreseeable risks of harm.”

Justin Anderson, a spokesman for Dartmouth, said the college took unprecedented steps in dealing with the professors after an outside investigator found evidence of misconduct. The university was prepared to revoke their tenure before they decided to leave.

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“We respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the characterizations of Dartmouth’s actions in the complaint and will respond through our own court filings,” Anderson said in a statement. “We applaud the courage displayed by members of our community within the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences (PBS) who brought the misconduct allegations to Dartmouth’s attention last year. And we remain open to a fair resolution of the students’ claims through an alternative to the court process.”

On Thursday, Dartmouth president Phil Hanlon sent an e-mail to the college community defending the review of sexual harassment allegations against the professors as “rigorous, thorough, and fair.”

Kelley’s attorney declined to comment, and Whalen’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.

Heatherton has said that he acted “unprofessionally while intoxicated” at several public events and has apologized for his behavior.

Julie Moore, a Wellesley attorney representing Heatherton, denied her client had any role in creating a toxic culture at Dartmouth and distanced him from the other two professors. Heatherton had no knowledge of any students being sexually assaulted and did not engage in the patterns of conduct that Whalen and Kelley are accused of, she said.

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“He repeats that he did not regularly socialize with graduate students and has never had any sexual relationship whatsoever with any student,” Moore said.

In an interview this week, the six named students in the lawsuit said that the alleged behavior by the professors and Dartmouth’s yearlong investigation and subsequent response left them reeling and betrayed.

Several graduate students said that even after they made their complaints in April 2017, they were encouraged by Dartmouth administrators to keep the professors as advisers into the summer to avoid retaliation and the loss of their academic support. But that meant the women had to continue to endure the same sexual harassment they had complained about, according to the lawsuit.

“None of this should have happened to any of us,” said Kristina Rapuano, 30, who completed her PhD at Dartmouth and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University.

In the lawsuit, Rapuano accused Whalen of inappropriately touching her in 2014 in his office, advances that she rejected.

The next year, Rapuano and Kelley attended a neuroscience conference in San Francisco and got drunk. Rapuano alleges that she informed Kelley that sexual contact would be unwelcome, but the two had sex nonetheless. Rapuano said she has no memory of the episode or how she returned to the hotel, but Kelley told her about it, according to the lawsuit.

Rapuano repeatedly tried to establish a more professional footing with Kelley, but felt his willingness to support her work was reliant on her complying with his sexual demands, according to the lawsuit.

“I felt trapped,” Rapuano said in an interview this week.

In 2016, Rapuano explicitly told Kelley she didn’t want a sexual relationship. He later wrote in an e-mail, “I don’t know how to separate the personal from the professional. I don’t know that it makes sense to do so.”

Rapuano went to Heatherton, who conducted research with Kelley, to voice her concerns and in January 2017 contacted Dartmouth’s then-provost to report the sexual harassment, the lawsuit says.

The provost informed Rapuano that she should talk to the Title IX office, which handles sexual harassment complaints, and to her department head, but did not open an investigation, according to Rapuano.

Marissa Evans, 22, who worked as an undergraduate in Kelley’s lab, alleged that the professor bombarded her with “unwelcome and offensive” text messages, including naked photos of himself, questions about her sexual practices, and his intention to have sex with her. Evans eventually blocked Kelley’s number and transferred to another lab, according to the suit.

The women said they all thought they were alone in receiving unwanted and inappropriate attention from their professors. That changed in March 2017 during a professional conference in Los Angeles, according to the students and the lawsuit.

Sasha Brietzke, 26, a doctoral student at Dartmouth, was out at a karaoke event at a Korean bar with other conference participants. Heatherton arrived drunk and called Brietzke over, groped her buttocks, pulled her onto his lap, and asked her what she was doing later that night, according to the suit.

“I felt really humiliated,” Brietzke said. “This is my introduction to the scientific community, and now I’m a sexual object.”

Brietzke started talking to other female students during the conference and realized that some shared similar experiences. Less than three weeks later, in early April, Rapuano and several other graduate students made a Title IX complaint against Kelley, Whalen, and Heatherton.

According to the lawsuit, Dartmouth didn’t inform the professors about the complaint until July 20 of that year.

Vassiki Chauhan, 27, a doctoral student at Dartmouth and Whalen’s teaching assistant at the time, also wasn’t aware of the allegations.

In mid-April, after a going-away celebration for a research assistant that involved drinking, Chauhan agreed to return to Whalen’s house for another drink.

Whalen repeatedly tried to “initiate sexual contact” and Chauhan kept rejecting his advances, according to the lawsuit.

Chauhan tried to leave multiple times, but Whalen followed her and talked her into staying, she said.

“Whalen then forced her to engage in nonconsensual intercourse with him,” according to the suit.

The next day, Whalen called a meeting with Chauhan, told her to keep their encounter private, and asked her if she thought it was consensual. Chauhan said she told him, “Yeah, I guess.”

But after the incident she was in pain and sought medical attention on campus, according to the lawsuit. In the weeks that followed, Whalen kept texting and asking for a meeting, but she made excuses to avoid him, she said.

“I always respectfully replied,” she said. “I felt really cornered about how to tell him to stop.”

She finally told him that she felt uncomfortable with his attention that May when he approached her at a bar. That was their last conversation, Chauhan said.

She had prepared a 10-page statement to present during his disciplinary hearing describing how the experience felt like an open wound. But Whalen resigned first.

“There is also lack of acknowledgment about how badly things were handled and how problematic the culture was,” Chauhan said. “All people want to do now is move on and pretend that Dartmouth is a land of peace and joy.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.