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Hunter College Failed to Handle Sexual Harassment Complaints Properly: Feds

By Shaye Weaver | November 2, 2016 6:07pm
 The main entrance of Hunter College on the Upper East Side.
The main entrance of Hunter College on the Upper East Side.
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Wikimedia Commons/Beyond My Ken

UPPER EAST SIDE — Hunter College was slow to address sexual harassment complaints and failed to protect victims from retaliation in the aftermath, according to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.

In May 2014, the department's Office for Civil Rights included Hunter College in a list of 55 schools to be investigated for violating Title IX laws, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any education program receiving federal funding and requires schools to have a protocol in place on how to handle complaints.

The probe was triggered after a student made sexual harassment complaints against a professor in 2011 and 2012, but the investigation revealed that the school had failed to properly address a slew of other complaints.

The student filed two complaints against the professor a year apart, and it wasn't until the second complaint that Hunter College finally launched an investigation into the matter, according to the education department.

In Hunter College's own report, it found that the professor had "preyed upon the [student's] immaturity and family circumstances, including her mother’s illness, and used interactions with [her] sister in order to further his relationship with [her]."

The school's report also states that the two had a consensual relationship until April 2012, and after that, the professor’s conduct became “non-consensual, uninvited, and unwelcomed … [i]t offended, annoyed and harassed [the complainant]," according to OCR's findings.

In addition to waiting a year of the first complaint to finally take action, the school took another four months to complete an investigation, and didn't report its outcome to the student until months after that, while discussing the results with the professor during that period, according to the education department.

Following its investigation, the school determined there wasn't enough evidence that the professor had retaliated against her. The professor was fired in the summer of 2013 after the school found that his "conduct became inappropriate."

The probe also found that Hunter College had not adopted or published information on how to report and handle harassment complaints, and had no measures established to prevent a hostile environment after a complaint is made, OCR's report states.

"The college’s determination that the professor engaged in repeated, unwelcome and graphic communications after April 2012 should have caused the college to assess whether a sexually hostile environment existed for the complainant," the report reads.

The Office for Civil Rights also reviewed other case files during the same period and found other instances where the school didn't do timely and fair investigations, and didn't provide sufficient solutions to address the impact of harassment and possible hostile environments.

The other instances involved a doctor affiliated with the school's nursing internship program, who admitted to a student that he was sexually attracted to black women, hugged her and rubbed his genitals against her leg; a student who allegedly raped another student; a doctoral student who threatened to remove a female student from a lab after she rejected his sexual advances — none of which were handled in a sufficient manner, according to the Office for Civil Rights.

The U.S. Department of Education would not say whether the outcome of the investigation involved any penalties or return of federal funding.

But in a written statement the agency said that CUNY and Hunter College had agreed to remedy its violations by taking a number of actions, including revising its reporting procedures, provide training to staff and college students about sexual misconduct and the school's policies, addressing any remaining effects the student may have suffered, and reexamining and handling all complaints of sexual harassment, assault and violence filed in recent years.

Hunter College released a statement saying that it "has agreed to a settlement without any admission of liability."

"OCR found that Hunter 'did take some important and appropriate steps to investigate and address the allegations. Hunter College and CUNY have always been committed to maintaining a campus environment free from discrimination, intimidation, or violence of any sort. It is a core value of the College and a goal we vigorously pursue by broadly disseminating our policies and rigorously enforcing them. Hunter College and CUNY will continue to work diligently to comply with Title IX rules."