May 28, 2023

COA grad files harassment charges against professor

BAR HARBOR – A former College of the Atlantic student has filed an eight-count lawsuit against the college and its board of directors and president, alleging that school officials did not investigate her sexual harassment complaint against a male professor or take action to protect her from retaliation.

The 10-page lawsuit was filed May 1 in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland by Errin Cayehal of Freeport, who graduated from COA in June 2001.

Cayehal alleges that professor Kenneth Cline made inappropriate sexual remarks to her, touched her buttocks and rubbed her neck and shoulders during a class canoe trip along the Union River in May 2001.

She further alleges that Cline retaliated against her for filing the complaint by giving her a B minus for his course and by writing a negative evaluation that became part of her college transcripts.

Cayehal also claims that COA President Steven Katona not only failed to investigate her complaint or protect her against retaliation from Cline, but also offered to amend her college transcripts in exchange for her dropping the complaint.

Last month, the Maine Human Rights Commission agreed with its investigator and ruled in favor of Cayehal. The two parties were unable to reach an out-of-court settlement.

Cayehal seeks punitive damages and other costs, such as attorney fees, according to the court complaint.The college has 30 days to respond to the complaint.

Efforts on Thursday to reach Cayehal’s attorney, Karen Frink Wolf of Portland, were unsuccessful.

Katona said Thursday that he believes Cline, a respected environmental lawyer and teacher, who denied speaking to or touching Cayehal inappropriately. Katona also strongly denied that he offered the student a deal to drop the case.

In an Aug. 14, 2001, letter to Cayehal, Katona said he informed her that he and Cline had accepted her requests that her grade be upgraded and that Cline’s written evaluation of her be amended to remove a sentence that Cayehal feared would hurt her chances at getting a job.

Katona then asked Cayehal to write a letter to him saying that by carrying out the terms she requested, the matter would be “resolved to your satisfaction” and that neither Cline nor Katona would pursue the matter further. She didn’t respond, according to the complaint.Professors can amend their narrative evaluation of students, particularly if students are concerned that it will hamper their job prospects, as long as the change is reasonable, Katona said.

Disagreements between professors and students over narrative evaluations, which are mandatory, “are very, very infrequent,” Katona said.

He said he didn’t consider a B minus a bad grade that showed retribution against Cayehal, nor did he think the written evaluation was any different from “thousands and thousands of evaluations in our files.”

“It certainly doesn’t seem so to us” that Cline retaliated against Cayehal, Katona said.

Cline, reached moments before he left Thursday for a 10-week sabbatical in Oregon, said he has been “unjustly accused” by Cayehal and insisted he was “completely fair” in evaluating Cayehal’s final work.

“It’s a mystery to me that it has progressed as far as it has,” said Cline, who has taught at COA since 1989.

The sabbatical has been planned for months, Cline said, and has nothing to do with the lawsuit being filed.

In her complaint against the college, Cayehal makes eight charges in all, including sexual harassment in education, a hostile educational environment, unlawful educational discrimination based upon sex, negligent retention of Cline as a professor, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and denial of a public accommodation [the college] free from discrimination.

Cayehal asserts in the lawsuit that Cline made “sexually suggestive” comments to her while the two were paddling in a canoe during a field trip on the Union River. The other students had paired up in other canoes.

The sexually suggestive comments included “nice stroke” and “you can be my partner for anything you want,” according to the court record. Cline also allegedly told Cayehal that he wanted “to play with” her.

The student also charges that Cline touched her buttocks while she was walking up a small hill during the class lunch break, and that he touched her body and rubbed her neck and shoulders after the canoe trip.

Cayehal alleges that other female students have complained to college leaders about inappropriate behavior by Cline.

According to Katona, Cayehal’s is the first complaint lodged against Cline and the first time a complaint involving COA has gone to court. Katona said that he did not become involved in the matter until months after the complaint was filed, but that other COA officials investigated Cayehal’s allegations.

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