Rollins College fires long-time tenured professor accused of sexual harassing students

WINTER PARK, Fla. — Rollins College fired a long-time tenured professor accused of sexual harassment against students.

The student who filed the Title IX complaint is now a senior at the College in Winter Park. Jacqueline Bengtson grew up in what she described as a diverse community in New Hampshire.

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“I grew up in a club called ‘Be the Change Club’ and we celebrated Diwali and Eid and had an affinity for world cultures and religions,” Bengtson said.

With that foundation, it was a no brainer that Jacqueline Bengtson study anthropology and religion after taking a gap year.

Some of her classes were at the French House on campus.

“That’s where I would have my Sanskrit lessons and that’s where it would happen and that’s where it would build up,” Bengtson said.

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Bengtson alleged the sexual harassment from one of her tenured professors, Doctor Mario D’Amato included frequent, unspecified sexual innuendos in class.

“He created a culture where it was ‘oh that’s just Dr. D’Amato, that’s just who he is and he’s funny. He created that environment and culture where it wasn’t even questioned,” she said.

Rollins would not comment on the case, telling us in a statement: “The College takes all complaints of sexual misconduct and interpersonal violence seriously and treats all involved in a fair, equitable, and unbiased manner. Title IX matters are sensitive and addressed confidentially. We will not comment publicly on any specific Title IX matter, nor will we comment on any specific employment or student matter.”

According to a document called the Determinations Regarding Responsibility that Bengston provided us, investigators heard an account of how he allegedly stared at her breasts and on another occasion advised her that she should have a “summer lover.”

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The alleged harassment, culminated last year, when D’Amato admitted to discussing his lack of libido while he had COVID-19, which he called a lapse of judgement.

We tried to reach him through his attorney, who hasn’t returned our calls. And we’ve been unable to track him down, independently.

“Almost every single instance from my three years of mentorship under him came flooding back to my mind that it all led up to this,” Bengtson said.

Title 9 is a federal law put in place in 1972 and prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program that receives funding from the federal government.

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According to this federal database there are currently more than 1500 pending sex discrimination cases in elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools across the country.

“What I didn’t know was how retraumatizing it is for witnesses,” Bengtson told investigative reporter Daralene Jones.

Leading Title 9 expert Courtney Bullard, based in Tennessee, explained how amendments the federal government put in place in 2020 have changed how the process works.

“We had guidance and institutions had discretion as to whether title 9 is resolved through a live hearing. Now with the new regulations from 2020 they are required to have a live hearing, so that is new and certainly that is traumatic to everyone involved,” Bullard told us.

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It also includes cross examination of the complainant, respondent and witnesses.

“What I soon came to realize there were other victims I wouldn’t have ever subjected them to have to recount their story,” Bengtson said.

A three person panel deemed D’Amato was responsible for specific alleged sexual comments, and a pattern of them.

According to the report though he admitted to some and denied or didn’t remember others, he compared his classroom behavior to that of an actor in order to keep his classes engaged and said his character uses sexual humor.

During interviews the panel heard from four other students, specifically mentees, who alleged similar unwelcome behavior. D’Amato appealed his termination, but it was denied.

“I stand here knowing that he’s gone and that there’s going to be no more little Jacqueline looking to study Asian religions and be under his mentorship,” Bengtson said.

Bengtson will share her story on campus on April 5.

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