Two English graduate students have filed a complaint in federal court arguing that Ohio University violated their civil rights by failing to act on complaints that English Professor Andrew Escobedo repeatedly sexually harassed female students for over a decade.
Illinois-based attorney Michael Fradin filed the complaint on behalf of the two women against Ohio University, former English Department Chair Joe McLaughlin and Escobedo to the U.S. District Court for the Southeastern District of Ohio Eastern Division on Wednesday.
In the complaint, Fradin argued that Escobedo obstructed the women’s right to equal access to education and that McLaughlin and the university further obstructed that right by remaining “deliberately indifferent” to reports of misconduct by Escobedo. Fradin requests that the case be tried before a jury.
OU interim president David Descutner has moved to fire Escobedo after an Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance investigation found that Escobedo sexually harassed and inappropriately touched female students as early as 2003.
According to a memo the office compiled, Escobedo bought two female students drinks at bars on Dec. 3, 2015, and then made unwanted sexual advances on them. One student told investigators that he touched her vagina over her clothing. Another said he kissed her without consent later that night and rubbed his erection against her leg. Both said they feared denying his advances would harm their grades or reputation.
According to the complaint, the climate of the English Department allowed Escobedo to aggressively pursue sexual relationships with female students. After learning Escobedo had a sexual relationship with a student in 2006, McLaughlin took no action to investigate the allegations, according to the complaint.
The complaint further argues that McLaughlin then conducted a climate survey of the English Department, that the survey indicated female students felt unsafe in the department and that the English Department later lost or destroyed the results of this survey.
McLaughlin was the chair of the English Department and is now the president of Ohio University’s faculty senate. The complaint calls him a “highly influential” member of the English Department, and alleges that he is a close friend of Escobedo.
In the complaint, Fradin described a culture of permissiveness toward Escobedo’s behavior. Other professors warned incoming graduate students about Escobedo’s sexual harassment and McLaughlin himself called Escobedo “somewhat of a flirtatious person,” according to the complaint.
Fradin argued in his complaint that if the university had responded to allegations of Escobedo’s misconduct earlier, the two women he represents would not have faced emotional trauma and barriers to academic access.
“If Defendant Escobedo is ultimately terminated from his employment, it would merely be an attempt by the university to put a ‘bandage’ on his years of abuse,” the complaint reads.
Both of the women considered leaving the university after the incidents on Dec. 3, according to the complaint. One woman's office was near Escobedo's, and she held her office hours at a local business to avoid contact with him.
The complaint argued the women faced sexual harassment that amounted to a violation of their rights under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law to all citizens, because Escobedo’s actions and the university’s indifference had a disparate effect on women.
The complaint asked that the university provide mandatory training for all mandated reporters the university employs. It asks that the university dismiss Escobedo and not permit him on or near campus and create a “less intimidating” system of reporting sexual misconduct for students and more subordinate faculty members.
It also calls upon the court to order the university to issue three public statements: one stating that it has failed to maintain a safe environment for victims of sexual misconduct violations, one from the university president and deans asking students to report sexual misconduct to college deans if they worry about retaliation from staff inside their departments and one stating that the university will not tolerate retaliation against anyone who reports sexual misconduct.
The complaint asked that the university fire Escobedo and prohibit him from coming near the campus, and that the university reimburse the women’s tuition. It also asks that the university pay for damages related to lack of access to education, damage to earning capacity and emotional damage.