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Sexual Harassment

A Stony Brook University student has alleged that a professor sexually harassed her. File photo

A 2018 Stony Brook University graduate has filed a lawsuit against a Stony Brook history professor claiming he verbally and sexually harassed her while giving preferential treatment to the male students over female students.

Erin Mosier, 24, filed a $3 million suit under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in Manhattan federal court Aug. 9 saying that Stony Brook associate professor Larry Frohman sexually harassed her and degraded her for her looks and gender, sometimes together during his office hours and other times in front of her peers during class.

Mosier enrolled at Stony Brook for the Fall 2015 semester desiring to become a teacher. She entered in the social studies education program in spring 2016 where Frohman was the sole undergraduate adviser, according to the court filings.

The lawsuit claims that during Mosier’s first semester at Stony Brook she took a class with Frohman and within weeks he started to privately and publicly make demeaning comments at Mosier based on her looks. The comments continued on into 2017 during her time in the social studies program. At one point during office hours Frohman told Mosier she “talks too much,” and that “all women should use their mouth for men’s pleasure.”

The lawsuit also alleges on another occasion April 2017 that after applying oil to her hands to calm herself, Frohman stated to her in front of her class, “What would calm me down is taking you through a ride on the beaver car wash with me,” alluding to a sexual act with Mosier.

Mosier’s legal representative, Brian Heller, an attorney from Manhattan-based Schwartz Perry & Heller LLP that focuses on employment harassment and discrimination law, said with this case he hopes more people will speak out about sexual harassment in education.

“These are the kind of painful experience that can destroy a young person’s confidence and impact them for the rest of their lives,” Heller said. “I hope that by coming forward [Mosier] is able to reclaim part of her self-worth and her confidence.”

The suit further claims Frohman gave preferential treatment to male students, giving higher grades to male students on average rather than female students. The lawsuit also claims the professor partnered women together on projects and not men as a sign of Frohman’s belief in their capabilities.

Frohman has not responded to requests for comment by press time.

The lawsuit continues that Mosier brought her complaints to Paul Gootenberg, the history department chair of the social studies program, but that he first asked Mosier “What is your appearance and how are you acting to be treated like this?” and that he further commented about how she was not the first to bring complaints to him about Frohman.

Gootenberg declined to comment saying the university does not comment on pending personnel questions.

The suit claims Mosier’s Title IX complaints were mishandled by the university, that the investigation took six months instead of a promised 60 days to finish the investigation and that the office did not adequately give information as to the status of her complaint. On Oct. 30, 2017, Mosier received a letter from the Title IX office saying the case was “closed” and her complaints were “substantiated” but she did not receive any details on what actions the university would take against the professor.

Stony Brook spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said that the university does not comment upon ongoing litigation.

“The university does have policies and procedures in place to fully investigate claims that are brought to our attention,” Sheprow said.

Heller said he is still waiting for Stony Brook to be formally served and initial hearings won’t begin until December.

Suffolk County Legislator Monica Martinez sponsored two bills regarding sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace for county employees. Photo from Suffolk County

All those in favor say #MeToo and #TimesUp. In a unanimous 18-0 vote, county lawmakers passed legislation last week that will set better standards and practices regarding sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace for county employees.

During its Feb. 6 meeting, members of the Suffolk County Legislature pushed forward two bills sponsored by Legislator Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood).

“My hope with these laws is that we become a safer county, that it gives something to build a foundation on and that people can feel comfortable in the workforce here,” Martinez said. “To me, it was mind-boggling that we didn’t really have anything set in the county, especially being one of the biggest counties and employers, so I’m proud of it and I really thank my colleagues for supporting me.”

“My hope with these laws is that we become a safer county, that it gives something to build a foundation on and that people can feel comfortable in the workforce here.”

— Monica Martinez

The first bill mandates the director of the Office of Labor Relations provide county legislators statistics on “the number, type and disposition of employee disciplinary proceedings” involving sexual harassment or discrimination for 2015, 2016 and 2017 within 90 days; and submits this information by Feb. 28 of each year, starting in 2019. The bill also states that the county attorney must issue a report that contains a list of all sexual harassment and discrimination claims filed against Suffolk County in court, plus the settlement of any litigation claims, for 2015, 2016 and 2017 within 90 days; and, again, submit this annually starting in 2019.

“The way the resolution in the policy is designed is that it would be broken down between county departments and, within each department, the division within that department will have a more concise gathering of data,” Martinez said, adding that names will be redacted from the data to protect the privacy of those involved. “This will really help us hone in on what’s going on and who we need to focus on in each department.”

She added she hopes the bill can help prevent sexual harassment lawsuits and reduce costs for taxpayers in the future.

According to Martinez and the elected officials who co-sponsored and supported the bill — including Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Legislator
Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) — the legislative body as a whole has never been made aware of these kinds of settlements or given insight into how many active complaints there are or the nature of those complaints, until now.

“In the past, if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get it,” Anker said. “But basically, here, we’re not asking, we’re telling them.”

Gregory said this will help make things more transparent.

“This will give us information so that we can fully exercise our oversight function as a policy-making branch of government.”

— DuWayne Gregory

“If we see there are things going on and there’s a pattern, then we have to be sure that the proper training is being provided to the various departments, or [an] individual department,” Gregory said. “This will give us information so that we can fully exercise our oversight function as a policy-making branch of government.”

Hahn agreed, saying that all the women in the legislature are eager to crack down on this issue.

“We want to be sure that our voices are heard,” she said. “When we say ‘me too,’ we are protecting all the women that work for the county and work within the county, and we’re all looking for ways to do more.”

She said there’s no question there have been incidents at the county level.

“There’s clear understanding that there’s a pervasive problem in our society, and a clear recognition that those statistics are important for us to understand,” Hahn said. “The better question now is, do we know how many? Do we know how pervasive this is? Do we know if we need more training or better training?”

The other bill passed will create a county policy in which all employees hired will be given a “Know Your Rights” pamphlet, maintained by the Department of Civil Services and Human Resources and issued by the director of the Office of Labor Relations. All new employees will be required to sign a document acknowledging they have received the pamphlet.

This will inform new employees who to contact if an issue arises and provide accountability.

“We need to get people aware that there is information pertaining to protecting their rights and protecting them from sexual harassment or discrimination, or both,” Anker said. “It’s a proactive measure … we are taking.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn is among the lawmakers hoping to use the #MeToo moment not only to change culture, but to change laws. File photo

Like a tidal wave slamming into the shore the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, born of high-profile sexual assault and sexual harassment cases becoming public, are decimating decades-old culturally accepted standards regarding behavior in the workplace and otherwise. In an effort to keep up with rapidly shifting societal norms, lawmakers from local town governments all the way up through the federal level are examining existing laws pertaining to workplace sexual misconduct while also crafting new ones to cover potential lapses — in government and the private sector.

Laura Ahearn, an attorney and the executive director of The Crime Victims Center, a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of sexual abuse and rape, as well as providing support for victims of violent crimes, said she views the #MeToo movement as a valuable opportunity.

“The #MeToo movement has created an ideal climate for us to call upon legislators to help us change a culture which has minimized sexual harassment and a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and sexual harassment,” she said, adding her organization, which runs the Parents for Megan’s Law website, has many state-level legislative priorities currently in the works.

“Women have been taught to believe that performing sexual favors for their bosses is part of the job.”

— Marjorie Mesidor

While cases of harassment, assault and general sexual misconduct involving prominent men in government and the entertainment industry are resulting in serious consequences, through loss of employment or social pariah status, low-profile offenders, especially from the private sector, are likely avoiding them. Creating concrete ways to punish offenders operating out of the public eye will be a challenge for lawmakers going forward.

According to Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), the county passed legislation in December mandating all elected officials and department heads be trained on sexual harassment and assault by the Office of Labor Relations.

The law mandates elected officials and department heads be trained starting 2018, and again every two years. Anker said she’s hoping to amend the law to make it mandated that every new hire be educated once taking a position.

Marjorie Mesidor, a partner at New York City’s Phillips & Associates law firm, which specializes in employment discrimination and sexual harassment cases, said she was floored to hear the law was only just put in place.

“Great progress,” she said. “I’m not mocking it, but my stomach is churning.”

Mesidor pointed at state and federal laws that require a complaint to be filed in order for businesses with management-level employees accused of harassment to be legally held liable as a deterrent in justice being achieved for victims. She said when formal complaints are made by employees, cross examination follows that takes on the tone of “slut shaming.” She said that in itself is enough to prevent many women from filing initial complaints, thus harming their harassment cases in the future.

“I’ve seen a trend of cases come into our office of women who are in forced sexual relationships with their bosses over time,” she said. “They’ve been taught to believe that performing sexual favors for their bosses is part of the job.”

“What about someone working in a deli, the restaurant waitress — their jobs, their life depend on that paycheck from the boss who might just be making them uncomfortable … It might be much worse.”

— Kara Hahn

Employees and employers in the private sector are often unaware of their rights and what constitutes harassment that would hold up in court, according to Mesidor. She said New York City Human Rights Law doesn’t require formal complaints, and should be looked to as an example for writing harassment laws.

Bills are currently in committee in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that would amend the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, a law passed to require Congress to follow employment and workplace safety laws applied to the business world. The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), if passed, would reform procedures for investigating harassment complaints in Congress and require public announcement of the offender and the dollar amount in the cases where settlements are reached. This week, Newsday reported more than $10 million of taxpayer money has been used to settle 88 sexual harassment, discrimination and other related cases in state government over the last nine years.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said she would like to see laws put in place requiring businesses to adopt best practices when it comes to sexual harassment, rather than simply providing legal cover for the ones that do.

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) agrees.

“What about someone working in a deli, the restaurant waitress — their jobs, their life depend on that paycheck from the boss who might just be making them uncomfortable,” she said. “It might be much worse.”

In October 2015, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation to prevent harassment in the workplace. The legislation directed the state Department of Labor and Division of Human Rights to make training available to employers to help them develop policies, procedures and their own training to address and eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Cuomo signed legislation “Enough is Enough” that year, which requires all colleges to adopt a set of comprehensive procedures and guidelines, including a uniform definition of affirmative consent, a statewide amnesty policy and expanded access to law enforcement.

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If a man and a woman are seen together having lunch, the inevitable gossip ensues. The two of them may be colleagues or they may simply be friends. But rumors start. Does this always happen? Not always, of course, but often enough to discourage pairing off for an exchange of ideas or career advice perhaps in business. Now, with sexual harassment in the news, there is added pressure for the sexes to go their separate ways lest any movement or words be misunderstood between them. What nonsense.

Please be assured that I am as passionately against sexual harassment as anyone on the planet. Wherever it may be found, it should be exposed and halted. But the pendulum, I believe, may be swinging too far in the other direction. Recently Vice President Mike Pence mentioned that he doesn’t eat alone with a woman who is not his wife. Recent polls indicate that a majority of employees of both sexes feel it is inappropriate to have a drink or dinner together and, although less so, it may also be inappropriate for lunch. Even driving together in a car can be looked at askance.

This wariness, although perhaps helpful in avoiding situations of sexual harassment, is a loser for both sexes, especially in the workplace. For men, who are apparently unsure where the boundaries are for a touch on the arm or an innocent compliment on a colleague’s dress, there is the loss of diversity. Women can have different sensibilities and can offer different perspectives than men, to the benefit of both. A recent advertisement featuring a woman has just been yanked by a major company because it may be misinterpreted as racist. My guess is that no woman executive of that company saw the ad before it went public.

For women, the loss is perhaps greater. Since most of the leadership of companies and institutions is still made up of men, the mentorship and sponsorship of female employees is at least as vital, or even more so, than for male junior-level employees. But if a woman cannot enjoy a close professional working relationship with such a sponsor, she is often blocked from moving up in the ranks.

I am reminded of my own business life and the people who helped me advance. Yes, there were a couple of women mentors who were willing to share their skills with me and promote my status, but there were more men along the way who selected me for advancement. One local businessman volunteered important advice to me at a critical time in the early years of the newspaper. Another energetically proposed me as a candidate for president of the New York Press Association, a position for which I will always be grateful. Another supported my intuition at a decisive juncture, I’m sure I don’t know why, but it worked out well. Several others helped me with various financial matters.

Did I meet with them alone for lunch or dinner or, heavens, for a drink? You bet I did. How else to get private time for critical conversation? Meetings in the office are routinely interrupted or overheard. Did I ever meet alone with anyone of the opposite sex in his bedroom? You can put money on the answer being “no”! There are lines one doesn’t cross, no matter what generation one belongs to, and they really are not so difficult to decipher.

Are work colleagues ever sexually attracted to each other? As long as there are men and women, there can be attraction between them. But so what? That’s the way the two sexes were put forth. Presumably we adults know all about that and can conduct ourselves accordingly. Or, to return to square one, we can avoid each other completely.

We women have a great deal we can offer men and vice versa. It would be so foolish to limit our contacts to only half the population. And besides, it wouldn’t nearly be as much fun.

What people don’t say can speak volumes.

Take the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Numerous women have come forward and described abhorrent behavior toward women by someone in power. That’s not a new phenomenon, but what’s new is the identity of the perpetrator and the time period involved — decades, it appears.

When asked about the allegations, President Donald Trump said he was “not at all surprised to see it.”

Hmm, not at all surprised? Didn’t the person whose every word and tweet gets splashed across headlines around the world have anything else to say, like, “If the allegations are true, it’s horrible and we should address this problem as a nation.” Or, “We as a country need to address this serious problem.”

No, he didn’t. In a follow-up question, a reporter asked if Weinstein’s behavior was inappropriate, and Trump responded that the movie executive said it was.

Again, not much there. I recognize this wasn’t a women’s rights forum and that he didn’t have prepared remarks or a flowing speech to cite, but he had an opportunity to address a real problem and he seemed more prepared to suggest he knew that Weinstein’s superstar public character had some tarnish.

The New York public transport system has run ads for years imploring, “If you see something, say something.”

That’s not always easy, especially when no one else might have been around to hear or see inappropriate comments or gestures.

This isn’t about political correctness: It’s about allowing people to do their best work without feeling threatened or uncomfortable. Locker room talk, or anything else that resembles a put-down for whatever reason, creates a hostile work environment.

Almost exactly a year ago, candidate Trump described several women who accused the Clintons of improper behavior towards women as “courageous” at a press conference before a debate with Hillary Clinton. While Trump hasn’t shared any such words of support for Weinstein’s victims, others have applauded them for coming forward. If Weinstein’s alleged victims had done so initially, taking on the equivalent of a movie icon could have put their careers at risk.

Gender politics are often a challenging and sore point at work. People can often dismiss inappropriate comments as being jokes or suggesting that their words weren’t what they intended.

Some jobs, like Wall Street trading, or, well, locker rooms, often involve a type of bawdy humor that is part of the culture.

But why should anyone have to tolerate it? With training and a heightened public awareness, the excuse “Well, that’s just the way it is” could turn into, “That’s not the way we do things around here.”

Pundits are suggesting that if eight women have come forward to accuse Weinstein, there are likely many more.

Then again, if he could and did engage in inappropriate conduct for decades, you have to imagine there are other men who did it, too.

Weinstein, in his own words, needs help. So, too, does the rest of society. He suggested he came from a different era. Others have taken him to task, indicating that somewhere along the line, he missed some major strides society made between whatever time period he imagined and today.

Who else is living in that era and how can we help them? Maybe, in addition to training the next set of up-and-coming managers, we should make sure the top executives — most of whom are men — understand what’s OK and what crosses a real line that is not only objectionable, but is also problematic for them and their careers.

We watch movies for many reasons: We want to be inspired, we want to understand other people and, sometimes, we want a perspective that helps us understand ourselves better. Maybe the inappropriate actions of a moviemaker can shed some more light on a problem that clearly isn’t unique to one person. A corollary to the transport ad, perhaps, should be, “If you hear something, say something.”

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Glenn Jorgensen poses with a tree stump at the Montclair Avenue highway yard. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

In a short and not very sweet memo, Smithtown’s supervisor called out the superintendent of highways.

Pat Vecchio (R) said he felt Glenn Jorgensen should resign from his post amid a slew of accusations surrounding his performance on the job, including an alleged sexual harassment scandal and various felony charges against Jorgensen regarding road paving projects late last year. The letter came after the supervisor learned Jorgensen, 63, had allegedly taken his personal secretary out to a job site.

Vecchio’s memo included an attachment from the Suffolk County Civil Service Department, which explicitly outlined the job description of the secretary to the highway superintendent and did not include on-site work.

“It is my understanding that today, May 13, 2015, you had [a] secretary accompany you to a job site,” the memo said. “It seems to me that you are either not comprehending why the position exists, you have a disregard for civil service law or you are mocking the town board and the public.”

Town records showed that Jorgensen, who could not be reached for comment, hired Kaitlin Swinson as his new secretary in late January. Her position had initially been terminated back in February when the town board voted unanimously to rescind the $38,000 allocated for her job, but later reinstated her position in a 3-1 vote in March. She could not be reached for comment.

The highway superintendent has been at the center of controversy for several months now since a notice of claim was filed against the town in December alleging he had sexually harassed his former secretary, Aimee-Lynn Smith, 27. The claim also alleged Jorgensen had taken her out to job sites, out to eat and eventually fired her after finding out she was dating an employee of the highway department.

Jorgensen, of St. James, was also slapped with separate charges accusing him of tampering with public records for a town paving project, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said.

Jorgensen pleaded not guilty to the four felony charges and the misdemeanor in April.

The district attorney alleged that Jorgensen directed a highway foreman to alter road construction reports to conceal that he had approved a contractor, Suffolk Asphalt Corp. of Selden, to pave at least eight Smithtown streets in freezing temperatures in November. The altered records misrepresented the weather conditions during the repaving work, Spota said.

Jorgensen’s misdemeanor grand larceny charge also accused him of stealing a public work order for the improper repaving and taking the official document home. District attorney detectives found the records in Jorgensen’s Hope Place residence, under his bed, Spota said.

“State department of transportation construction standards dictate asphalt must not be applied to a road surface in freezing temperatures and, in fact, the town’s own engineer has said repaving in freezing weather would result in the asphalt falling apart,” Spota said. “The repaving of a residential street doesn’t happen that often and when it does, residents are paying for a job done correctly, not a faulty repaving that will soon need pothole repair work.”

Smithtown Democratic Committee Chairman Ed Maher also called for Jorgensen’s resignation back in April after the charges surfaced, calling the taxpayers funding of his salary an outrage.

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