A former Shippensburg University student has filed a sexual harassment complaint against the school, claiming it failed to protect her against unwanted sexual advances from a supervisor.
In a lawsuit filed Aug. 11 in the U.S. Middle District Court in Harrisburg, the woman details the “overt sexual advances” she faced from an assistant dean who served as her supervisor for her graduate assistantship. According to the plaintiff, the advances included a proposed “ménage à trois” with the assistant dean and a man, court documents said.
The lawsuit claims that the plaintiff’s refusal to engage in sexual acts with the assistant dean led to the termination of her employment and loss of tuition assistance. The lawsuit claims the university violated Title IX regulations including quid pro quo sexual harassment, causing intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision.
The ex-student, a Shippensburg area resident, and the assistant dean were not named in the documents. Both worked in the university’s Office of Professional, Continuing and Distance Education (PCDE), and court documents identify the woman as a former graduate student who served as director as testing for the office.
In the lawsuit, the former student is suing to prohibit the university from violating Title IX regulations, to compensate her for all pay and benefits lost and for punitive damages to punish the university for “willful and malicious conduct.” The suit also requests compensation for emotional distress and pain.
Stephanie Jirard, SU’s chief equity, inclusion and compliance officer and Title IX coordinator, said in a Zoom meeting, “The university will remain committed to preventing and fully investigating all claims of alleged sexual misconduct.”
Jirard, who was appointed Title IX coordinator May 13, added that after a review of circumstances, there is no indication of further risk to the campus community. She encouraged campus community members to report claims of sexual misconduct to the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Compliance.
The university is represented by legal counsel through the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
According to the suit, the harassment began in January 2019.
After the assistant dean began making “overt sexual advances,” the plaintiff rejected the advances and approached the PCDE dean to complain, court documents said.
However, according to court documents, the dean said “she did not want to hear about it.”
The plaintiff claims the advances continued from January to April 2019 between two and four times a week.
Court documents said the plaintiff and assistant dean went on a business trip to Philadelphia in March/April 2019 where the assistant dean asked the plaintiff to look at photos on her phone. The photos showed the assistant dean naked and engaging in sexual activities, according to the court report.
The plaintiff told the assistant dean that “she did not need to see these photos.”
After returning from the trip, the assistant dean threatened the plaintiff’s job and warned her that she could suffer the same fate as the previous director of testing if she did not respect and obey her because she was her boss, documents said.
According to the plaintiff, she went to the dean again to complain of the sexual harassment and the dean again told her she did not want to hear about it because the assistant dean was her friend.
Court documents said the harassment continued into summer 2019.
In August 2019, the plaintiff and the assistant dean attended a work-related conference in New Orleans where the assistant dean asked for a room key for the plaintiff’s room in case she wanted to see her, documents said. The plaintiff refused the request.
The assistant dean continued her sexual advances, including asking the plaintiff to accompany her on a date with a person from an online dating site, documents said. The plaintiff again refused the advances, and according to court documents the assistant dean was noticeably upset at the rejection.
The next day, the assistant dean confronted the plaintiff in front of other attendees at the New Orleans conference by cursing and yelling that she would not have a job when they returned to Shippensburg.
The plaintiff worked from home for two days after returning from the trip, saying she was not comfortable returning to the workplace until speaking with the dean. When she returned, she found that the assistant dean told everyone that she was no longer employed at the university. The plaintiff approached the dean to explain what happened during the trip, and the dean again refused to hear the story, according to the lawsuit.
A few days later, the plaintiff was called into a meeting with the university’s vice president of human resources and the PCDE dean to discuss accusations that she had engaged in “unprofessional behavior” during the trip.
The plaintiff said it was the assistant dean who acted unprofessionally and provided them with some details of the harassment.
The human vice president asked why the plaintiff did not complain about the behavior, and she looked at the dean and said she tried. The dean did not deny that the plaintiff approached her, according to court documents.
The plaintiff’s employment was terminated and she never returned to pick up her final paycheck and her tuition benefits were discontinued in December 2019.
The plaintiff filed a formal complaint with the Title IX Coordinator on Aug. 22, 2019, with attached text messages detailing the harassment. Court documents said the human resources vice president said he would reconsider reinstating the plaintiff in some capacity and would contact her but has yet to do so.
The assistant dean was placed on leave and resigned from her position in lieu of termination within several weeks after the plaintiff presented her evidence to the Title IX coordinator, according to the document.
The Slate’s request for comment from the plaintiff’s counsel was not returned before this story was published.
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