Ohio University, English Professor Joe McLaughlin and English Professor Andrew Escobedo asked a federal court to dismiss a civil rights complaint against them, Thursday.
Two English graduate students, Susanna Hempstead and Christine Adams, filed a complaint to the U.S. Southern District Court of Ohio Eastern Division on March 8 arguing they were denied equal access to education through sexual harassment by Escobedo and deliberate indifference by McLaughlin and the university.
They argued that McLaughlin and the university failed to respond to a sexual misconduct complaint against Escobedo in 2006, allowing his behavior to continue and therefore violating their rights to equal access to education.
An investigation by the Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance found that Escobedo sexually touched without consent and sexually harassed female students. The office received six complaints, and investigators found enough evidence that Escobedo violated university policies in four of those cases. One complaint stemmed from an incident in 2004.
Adams and Hempstead filed the complaint that initiated the investigation to the office in March 2016. They said Escobedo, their instructor at the time, invited them and their classmates to Jackie O’s for an end-of-semester party and bought them several drinks, then repeatedly sexually touched them over the course of the night.
In his response to the complaint against him, Escobedo denies that he committed any sexual misconduct. He also argues that he was not the one who would submit the women’s grades.
Investigators from the Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance previously found that he did have power over the students’ grades. Although the co-instructors would submit the grades to Escobedo, he was the one who ultimately submitted the grades to the registrar.
Escobedo admitted to some of the other assertions in the complaint against him. He admitted that he invited the students to a end-of-the-year celebration at Jackie O’s and bought the students about five rounds of drinks, but denied sexually touching either student.
Adams said in her complaint that Escobedo forced a kiss on her and rubbed an erection on her at the end of the night. He said in his response that did not happen.
According to the initial compliant, Hempstead said Escobedo had replied to a comment earlier in the night by saying, “careful, I still haven’t submitted your grade,” giving the students reason to fear academic retaliation. Escobedo denied that happened.
In general, he denied he has any tendency to make sexual advances toward female students.
The Office of Institutional Equity, an office that existed before the Office of Equity and Civil RIghts Compliance, conducted a climate survey of graduate students after the 2006 complaint. Neither the English Department nor the Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance have copies of that climate survey.
In the initial complaint, the students argued there is “no valid reason” for neither office to have copies of the survey. Ohio University English Professor Martha Dutton saw the results of that survey and said it indicated female students did not feel “safe” in the English graduate program.
Escobedo argued in his response that the survey indicated that few or none of the graduate students who responded had experienced sexual harassment.
The university’s and McLaughlin’s legal counsel argued in its response that McLaughlin, with whom Escobedo admitted he has a “close personal friendship,” is entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects public officials from liability as long as “their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
The university also argued that the two students did not provide enough evidence to plausibly argue that McLaughlin denied their equal participation rights.
The university argued officials took adequate measures to respond to sexual harassment reported to them. The Office of Institutional Equity investigated the complaint it received in 2006, but found investigators had insufficient evidence that Escobedo had violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy.
Escobedo was placed on administrative leave within one week of Hempstead and Adams’ complaints against him, according to the university’s response. The university conducted an investigation into the situation and has initiated dismissal proceedings against Escobedo.
Therefore, the university argued, the court should dismiss the complaint against it.
Escobedo remains on paid administrative leave as he awaits a hearing before a Faculty Senate committee to determine whether he should be dismissed from his position. The Faculty Senate chair typically heads such committees, but McLaughlin is the chair and he has opted to recuse himself from the proceedings.