A former Morehouse student is suing the school for failing to help him after a male professor allegedly groped him repeatedly during a study abroad trip. But the professor said students are targeting him because he is gay.
The alleged victim is seeking monetary and punitive damages due to the school’s “deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment, sexual violence, discrimination and retaliation,” according to the lawsuit.
The unidentified student was a freshman when he went on the study abroad trip with other students to Brazil in May 2015. The lawsuit alleged that assistant professor Robert Peterson ordered him alcoholic drinks on the flight despite his being a minor. Then Peterson allegedly groped his genitals.
“This occurred approximately four different times during the airplane ride from Miami to Brazil,” the lawsuit said. “Plaintiff pushed Defendant Peterson’s hand away each time.”
Peterson continued to sexually harass the student and other Morehouse students throughout the trip, the lawsuit said. This included sending explicit text messages and making frequent comments about sex.
One of the text messages Peterson allegedly sent to students had a picture of a man's penis, which Peterson referred to as a "shrimp salad/dinner." He also repeatedly asked them "if they wanted a shrimp dinner," the lawsuit said.
Peterson allegedly mimicked fellatio during a visit to a museum with African cultural sex symbols that depicted penises.
“This made numerous students on the trip uncomfortable and created a sexually hostile learning environment," the lawsuit said.
Peterson also allegedly "touched or sucked a student's nipple" while in a swimming pool and hosted a party in his hotel room where alcoholic drinks were offered to underage students.
Another chaperone on the trip became aware of Peterson’s behavior and reported it to a department chair after arriving home. But the lawsuit alleged that it was never reported to the Title IX office and Peterson continued to be the program lead and chaperone for the school’s study abroad program through at least May 2017.
The student who claimed he was groped said he began to suffer emotionally and academically as a result of the incidents, and he left Morehouse in fall 2017.
The student filed a Title IX complaint in December 2017, but Morehouse claimed they didn’t receive it. The student resubmitted the complaint in January 2018 and an investigation began. Peterson was put on unpaid leave and the investigation recommended he be fired. He no longer teaches at the school.
Peterson “vehemently denied” the allegations and insisted that “the students were saying these things about him because they didn’t like the fact that he is gay,” according to the results of the investigation included in a court filing.
The lawsuit was filed in Fulton County Superior Court on Nov. 19.
Neither Morehouse nor Peterson responded to Project Q Atlanta’s requests for comment on the allegations and lawsuit.
UPDATE | Cade Parian, the attorney for the alleged victim, told Project Q that Morehouse is failing its students.
"Our investigation into this professor's predatory behavior showed a systemic cover-up and lack of response by Morehouse officials. Higher education is no place for physical intimidation and sexual abuse by faculty members," he said. "In more than one instance, Morehouse has failed its students by allowing such behavior to be swept under the rug. It’s time for Morehouse to be called out."