Articles Posted in College Sexual Harassment

In October 2013, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed the Plaintiff’s claim of sexual harassment in Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television, Inc. The court found that since as an unpaid intern Ms. Wang was not paid by the defendant, she was therefore not an employee for purposes of the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) and thus not able to assert an actionable hostile work environment claim under the NYCHRL.

The District Judge’s legal reasoning about the case might have been sound. However, the idea that unpaid interns, generally the least powerful people in their organizations, have no recourse in cases of discrimination or exploitation in virtue of being unpaid seems like exactly the kind of situation laws like the NYCHRL aim to prevent. Seeing that the existing law offered no recourse for people like Ms. Wang, the case became a catalyst for the New York City Council (NYCC) to change the law so it would encompass cases like hers by protecting unpaid interns from workplace discrimination and harassment. So on March 26, 2014, after defining “intern” broadly as “an individual who performs work for an employer on a temporary basis whose work: (a) provides training or supplements training given in an educational environment such that the employability of the individual performing the work may be enhanced; (b) provides experience for the benefit of the individual performing the work; and (c) is performed under the close supervision of existing staff. The term shall include such individuals without regard to whether the employer pays them a salary or wage,” the NYCC unanimously voted to add the following wonderfully succinct passage to the NYCHRL: “The provisions of this chapter (of the administrative code of the City of New York) relating to employees shall apply to interns.”

The NYCHRL now explicitly affords the same protections to interns and paid employees, protections from discrimination based on their age, race, national origin, gender, disability, or other protected characteristics. Companies will now also be required to make reasonable accommodations in certain circumstances, and to refrain from retaliatory responses to complaints by interns about discrimination.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported an inspiring story about the increasingly collaborative effort by college students to combat their own institutions’ lackadaisical responses to sexual assault.

We blogged in January about the Department of Education complaint filed by students and a former administrator at the University of North Carolina. Those students were working with Amherst College undergraduates already involved in raising awareness of the way sexual assault is handled on their campus. (In 2012, an Amherst student took his own life, and his suicide note specifically decried the lack of support he was offered when he reported being assaulted.)

The Times this week pointed out that the Amherst group, in turn, received help from Yale students. A nationwide collaboration may be in the works, but the “informal national network” has already been effective:

The victims’ advocates have talked of creating a formal national organization, but much of their success so far stems from their use of modern media, allowing them to connect, collect information and draw attention in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago.

Both victims and those accused of assault agree that colleges’ responses to sexual assault are lacking, although for different reasons:

Activists contend that colleges fall short in educating students about sexual assault, encouraging victims to seek help, counseling survivors, reporting the frequency of such crimes, and training the people who investigate and adjudicate cases. Advocates for people brought up on charges tend to agree that campus disciplinary systems are amateurish, but they contend that the result is inadequate protection for the rights of the accused.

The Harman Firm is actively working toward safer learning environments for university students. We have and continue to represent college students in lawsuits against colleges, universities, and professors for sexual harassment and other types of extremely offensive and inappropriate conduct (sexual assault, discrimination, etc.). (See coverage in the Daily News).

Despite their well-honed image as havens of forward thinking, America’s universities are all too often hostile, even violent environments for women, gays and other minorities.

At the University of North Carolina, officials are fighting the allegations of a complaint filed with the Department of Education. The student newspaper reported the details: “Four current and former students and former assistant dean of students Melinda Manning accused the school of underreporting sexual assault cases for 2010 in an annual report to the federal government on campus crime. The complaint also alleged that campus officials allowed a hostile environment for students reporting sexual assault.”

According to the UNC student newspaper, at Thursday’s UNC Board of Trustees meeting, “University officials denied [the] allegations.” The UNC Chancellor said the university was reaching out to legal expert Gina Smith, who has recently consulted with Amherst College, another top institution that has recently been embroiled in sexual assault controversy.

Writing a masters thesis is hard enough: with finding a topic, researching, and the finally putting it all in writing. Another important step is to find a faculty member who is willing to act as your advisor to guide you through your thesis process. Now imagine you find such an advisor but he is more interested in your personal life than helping you with any of your working. Imagine being uncomfortably close every time you went for guidance and that’s what happened to one Columbia grad student.

Every time Ms. Williams went to meet with her faculty advisor Mr. Martin, she would be bombarded with personal questions about her private life. Every time she attempted to steer the conversation back towards her thesis on human trafficking, she would be faced with more questions. Mr. Martin was bold enough to repeatedly solicit Ms. Williams for sex while making it clear that any negative response would seriously affect her final course evaluation.

Ms. Williams emails other faculty members for meeting to discuss the sexual harassment she was facing by Mr. Martin but her emails went unanswered. Mr. Martin stated to the Plaintiff “even if I am the professor and you are the student and there is a power difference, you would still be choosing if you wanted a good grade. This is the same as sex in exchange for your grade.”

Sexual harassment in college and university settings has long been a problem, but only recently has drawn national attention. Two key recent scandals at Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse University are the cause of this new attention, and also growing concern.

It was a shock to hear that, after decades of cited sexual abuse and molestation, the assistant coach of Pennsylvania State University’s successful football team was finally indicted and investigated. The investigations, while still ongoing, have revealed shocking patterns of university cover ups. How could that many years of abuse and harassment be brushed under the rug?

However, this type of sexual abuse and harassment is widespread, from single victim cases to ones involved multiple victims. Recently, Syracuse University faced a similar situation with their associate head coach of the men’s basketball team, Bernie Fine. Despite abuse dating back to 1884, and various reports made to the administration during that time, Mr. Fine did not suffer any adverse employment actions until his termination last week. The termination arose because a third potential victim came forward and an incriminating voice recording of Mr. Fine’s wife speaking to a victim of Mr. Fine’s abuse.

The recent resignations of two high-ranking black administrators at Columbia have led some professors to question President Lee C. Bollinger‘s leadership. Last June, the University’s provost, Claude M. Steele, resigned. His resignation was followed by the undergraduate dean, Michele M. Moody-Adams, last week. They were the first African-Americans to hold their respective positions at Columbia.

According to reporter Alan Schwarz from the New York Times, Fredrick C. Harris, a professor of political science, wrote to Mr. Bollinger explaining that these recent departures have “shaken (his) confidence – as well as the confidence of many others at Columbia – in the ability of Columbia to maintain diverse leadership at the top.”

June Cross, an associate professor at the University’s Graduate School of Journalism, was quoted as saying “I’m not saying race is the issue, but it is the subtext.”

The Harman Firm is committed to regularly addressing and working to expose and prevent further sexual harassment on on college campuses.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” It is a remedial (rather than punitive) statute designed to eliminate financial participation of the federal government in illegal discrimination. Title VI claims cannot be brought against individual defendants as they do not receive federal funding. In college and university settings, Title VI has been invoked in racial and ethnic discrimination and harassment cases. It has also been used in affirmative action cases. Sexual harassment cases, however, are made using either Title IX or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Title IX was enacted by congress in the Education Amendments of 1972 and states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” Title IX is identical to Title VI, except that Title VI “prohibits race discrimination, not sex discrimination, and applies to all programs receiving federal funds.” The Supreme Court has held that “…”sexual harassment” is “discrimination” in the school context under Title IX…” Other courts have held that sexual discrimination cases against institutions receiving federal funds should be brought under Title IX, not under Title VI. “Because [Title VI] does not forbid sex discrimination, Plaintiffs’ Title VI claim against the Army is dismissed with prejudice.” “Indeed, the legislative history reveals that Title IX was designed to fill the gap left by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which did not prohibit discrimination based on sex.”

Now that school has returned, and the Summer long gone, The Harman Firm would like to remind everyone of the problem with college sexual harassment. While most people are aware of the problem of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, the uniqueness of the college setting presents an entirely different spin on sexual harassment.

Like in the workplace with employees and supervisors, there is a power dynamic between students and their professors. Professors can take advantage of this power-balance to leverage a sexual relationship from students and take advantage of them. Students are often reluctant to complain about such behavior, fearing it will lower their grades or get them ostracized on campus.

The Harman Firm believes that all victims of college sexual harassment should stand up and expose those individuals that have taken advantage of them. All people should have the ability to get an education without the threat of harassment and retaliation.

For more information on what college sexual harassment looks like, please watch the clip below:
Continue Reading

In 1992 playwright David Mamet shocked and surprised theatergoers with the premiere of his play, Oleanna. Now, as the play returns to Broadway after 17 years, a new production is set to reignite the discussion and debate stemming from the intense and emotional play.

The play centers around two individuals, a professor and one of his students. Through the course of the play, the student accuses her professor of sexual harassment and abuse of his power of his role as a professor.

This groundbreaking work came at a time when America was dealing with the fallout of the Anita Hill case in Washington, DC, extending the debate to the stage. However new then, sexual harassment remains a constant problem in our society, showing how far we still need to work to overcome it.

In recent years, much has been done to raise awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, and how to go about identifying and reporting such behavior. However, this practice still affects scores of workers, with more and more individuals reporting sexual harassment in an academic setting.

According to the AAUW, over two thirds of college students have experienced some form of sexual harassment, while staggeringly few of these individuals come forward and report such activity. The sexual harassment seen on college campuses is not greatly different in the ways in which it is manifested- name calling, inappropriate touching, threats. Rather it is the situating of individuals around a college that leads to differences in how it is viewed and treated.

In recent years, sexual harassment carried out by teachers and professors has been under greater scrutiny by watch groups. Professors who have been accused of harassment have often taken advantage of the position of power they occupy over students, leaving the student vulnerable. As well, professors spend a considerable amount of time alone with students in their work. Concerns over appearances, as well as grades have led many individuals to not report harassment that occurs on campus.