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Lurid new details in $60 million sex harassment lawsuit against Columbia University


Dean took ‘unilateral control’ of student’s on-campus counseling, suit says

The legal team of a young woman suing Columbia University for $60 million over alleged sexual harassment recently released an amended version of that lawsuit, revealing the plaintiff’s name and more detailed and disturbing allegations against Columbia university staff.

The plaintiff, Irene Politis, was previously suing Columbia for $50 million over an alleged inappropriate relationship between her and Tom Harford, the then-dean of students at the School of General Studies. As The College Fix previously reported, Politis was allegedly raped in May 2018, after which she was referred to Harford by university officials so that he might “provide her with emergency housing and other assistance,” the lawsuit read.

Harford then allegedly initiated a sexual relationship with Politis, referred to as Jane Doe in the original lawsuit.

“Ms. Politis chose to publicly reveal her name in the Amended Complaint because she wanted to ensure that the public knew that she was not afraid to stand up to Columbia University,” David Sanford, an attorney representing Politis, told The Fix via email.

New details allege therapist’s coverup, mental health oversight, university’s knowledge

The amended lawsuit, which asks for $10 million more than the initial suit, reveals additional details regarding the extent of Harford’s and the university’s alleged misdeeds against Politis.

One of the details in the amended complaint states that Harford “unilaterally assumed control of Ms. Politis’s mental health treatment, communicating directly with Ms. Politis’s CPS therapist and facilitating her therapy appointments.”

It is unclear to what extent Harford allegedly exercised “control” over Politis’s treatment. Repeated emails to numerous university officials were not returned. According to the United States Department of Education, students’ counseling records “are generally considered to be education records,” and are thus protected under the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, though institutions and officials have some latitude in disclosing protected information to third parties.

Frank LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, said that there is “a fair amount of gray” when it comes to who is permitted to see a student’s private information.

“We don’t know all the facts, but looking at the way the scenario is described, the therapist may well have felt that Harford qualified as a person authorized to receive FERPA-protected records because he was representing himself to be part of the student’s support team,” LoMonte told The Fix.

“I think that’s the big ‘if’ here: We don’t know what Harford told the therapist. If Harford is holding himself out to the therapist as a confidant of Ms. Politis who needs information about the course of her therapy so he can help her qualify for support services, then Harford has every appearance of being an authorized recipient,” LoMonte added.

Disturbingly, the lawsuit also seems to allege a possible coverup from Politis’s therapist upon her having learned of the relationship between Politis and Harford.

“Ms. Politis informed her therapist at Columbia’s Counseling and Psychological Services that a romantic and sexual relationship had formed with Dean Harford. Plaintiff’s therapist discouraged her from telling anyone else about her relationship with Dean Harford, asserting that Ms. Politis had merely experienced a ‘bad breakup’ and warning her that Harford would be ‘done’ if Ms. Politis spoke to others about her situation,” the lawsuit states

“The therapist additionally informed Ms. Politis that she would not take notes about Plaintiff’s disclosure of her romantic and sexual relationship with the Dean of Students,” it continues.

The lawsuit also states that Harford “further manipulated Ms. Politis into trusting him by promising to assist her in receiving disability accommodations from Columbia.” Harford purportedly told Politis that “Daddy will talk to [the disability office].” The lawsuit claims elsewhere that Harford referred to himself as “Daddy” on at least one other occasion, and referred to Politis as “Princess” at least twice.

The university also reportedly knew about the inappropriate relationship, according to the suit. School officials were allegedly aware that Harford had given Politis money and that they were frequently exchanging text messages, but the school nevertheless “failed to take steps to protect Ms. Politis from harassment” by the dean.

Student submitted to sexual relationship ‘as a function of survival’

This relationship “caused Ms. Politis severe trauma” that resulted in a requirement for Politis to undergo “intensive medical treatment, including continuous mental health care.”

“Dean Harford inserted himself into Ms. Politis’s life when she was at her most vulnerable, and as a function of survival, Ms. Politis acquiesced to Dean Harford’s sexual and romantic advances. Ms. Politis went to Columbia for protection and safety, and instead the University exposed her to another predator who wielded his unchecked power to control Ms. Politis’s access to University resources—resources that he knew she desperately needed,” the suit continues.

Politis experiences “nearly constant anxiety, disassociation, and despair,” the lawsuit adds.

Asked about the late addition of the new details, Sanford told The Fix that “the details added in the Amended Complaint are a direct result of additional information that was brought to our attention by multiple individuals following the filing of the original complaint.”

Sanford added that Columbia and Harford filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on Feb 13. Sanford’s team is “in the process” of drafting an “opposition to the motion to dismiss” which they are “confident [they] will survive.”

“The case is also currently in the early stages of discovery. The parties will be exchanging documents and other relevant information in the coming months. Ms. Politis is eager to litigate her claims to full resolution at trial,” he added.

UPDATE: This article has been updated with quotes from University of Florida professor Frank LoMonte.

MORE: $50 million sexual harassment lawsuit shines light on Columbia’s staff-student sex policy

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About the Author
Matthew Stein -- Swarthmore College