UCLA Failed to Protect Students from Sexual Harassment, Lawsuit Says

Already one of 106 colleges and universities under investigation by the federal Department of Education for possible violations of Title IX, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) now faces a Title IX lawsuit by two graduate students.

On June 11, Nefertiti Takla and Kristen Hillaire Glasgow filed the suit and demand for jury trial against the Board of Regents of the University of California for allowing a sexually hostile environment that they claim “was so severe” it deprived them “of access to educational opportunities and benefits.”

In the lawsuit, Takla and Glasgow allege they endured repeated instances of sexual harassment and assault by Gabriel Piterberg, a UCLA history professor, and that UCLA acted with “deliberate indifference” to their reports in violation of Title IX, the equal education law that bars sex discrimination.

UPDATE Sept. 28: The UCLA Board of Regents have denied the students’ allegations in an official response. The students amended their lawsuit in August to further allege that the school failed to properly protect Glasgow because Piterberg was allowed to continue teaching at UCLA following her complaints. The parties are scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 2.

Piterberg served as Takla’s dissertation advisor and sat on a committee that made decisions about which students should be allocated funding—funding Glasgow largely depended on to continue her studies.

The lawsuit alleges Piterberg:

  • Made “unwanted sexual advances” toward the plaintiffs
  • Sexually assaulted the plaintiffs by pressing himself against them and forcing his tongue in their mouths
  • Repeatedly told the plaintiffs of his alleged “sexual affairs with UCLA professors and graduate students”

Takla was the first of the two plaintiffs to lodge a complaint with UCLA’s then-Title IX coordinator, Paula Thomason. Takla alleges that Thomason later told her Piterberg “admitted to the ‘basic facts’” of the complaint, “but denied ‘manipulating or trying to coerce’ her.” Glasgow later notified Thomason by phone of her harassment by Piterberg. Both plaintiffs allege they were “never once advised of [their] Title IX rights or [their] rights under the University of California Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Policy.” The latter states that victims of sexual assault “shall be provided with a written explanation of the individual’s rights and options.”

Further, Takla alleges that Thomason “actively discouraged [her] from pursuing a formal investigation,” telling her that if brought before the Academic Senate, “Professor Piterberg’s peers may well side with him.” Takla claims that Thomason advised her that “early resolution,” a process used to resolve concerns cooperatively between two parties and/or when a formal investigation is not likely to lead to a satisfactory outcome, was the best way to handle the matter. Thomason allegedly said it would be faster, more effective and that “UCLA would tell her the terms of the resolution once that resolution had been reached.” Yet according to UCLA’s procedure for responding to reports of sexual harassment, “early resolution is inappropriate” in cases “when reports involve individuals with a pattern of inappropriate behavior or allege criminal acts such as stalking, sexual assault or physical assault.”

It took UCLA over nine months to complete investigation of Takla’s complaint, according to the suit, “and [investigators] never made any findings…in contravention of what Title IX requires.” When Takla asked to learn the outcome of the early resolution process, Thomason allegedly told her “that there was no formal documentation or report because the investigation had been terminated by the conclusion of the early resolution.” The university’s Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Policy requires that the Title IX officer “maintain records of reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence at the location and actions taken in response to reports, including records of investigations, voluntary resolutions, and disciplinary action.”

Both plaintiffs are demanding reimbursement for tuition and related expenses, expenses incurred as a consequence of the sexual harassment, deprivation of equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities provided by UCLA, lost earnings and earning capacity, and past, present and future emotional pain and suffering.

The Ms. Blog called UCLA to inquire about the terms of the early resolution and what, if any, actions have been taken. In response, the school’s media relations office released the following statement:

UCLA is committed to providing an environment free from harassment and discrimination and ensuring due process for all members of our community. The facts of this case are complex and due to the privacy rights of all involved, we are prohibited from making further comment.

Thomason has since left UCLA and is now the Title IX compliance officer for the California State University system. Piterberg has remained a member of UCLA’s faculty, but is not scheduled to teach in the fall, according to UCLA’s history department.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Prayitno licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Julia Robins is a Ms. editorial intern and a graduate of William & Mary. Follow Julia on Twitter @julia_robins.