Student says Long Island professor sexually assaulted her in front of class, sues college

Janelle Griffith

A student alleges in a lawsuit that she was sexually assaulted by a professor at a college on Long Island, New York, during an April 2016 classroom demonstration.

Jaclyn Vitale said the incident occurred at the New York College of Health Professions' Syosset campus, when she was told by professor Mark Gresser to "lay on the table like a slut" in his myology class and was then groped, according to the lawsuit filed against the school Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court.

Vitale, who currently lives in Florida, enrolled in the college in February 2016 to major in massage therapy, the lawsuit states.

The professor chose Vitale to help demonstrate what is called the "hip-hiking" muscle as part of the day's lesson, according to the lawsuit. Vitale was allegedly supposed to play a patient, and lay on her stomach on a table in front of the class while her six or so classmates each took a turn "to palpate the muscle in question."

"It was common for students to take turns in role play, as either patients or prospective therapist, during this course," the lawsuit says, so Vitale did not see anything wrong or strange about the professor's request that she help with the demonstration.

When she joined the professor at the front of the class, the lawsuit says he told her "to lay on the table like a slut!"

Vitale was shocked and appalled, the lawsuit says, and was instructed to lay on the table on her stomach with her pelvic area and hips elevated. Afterward, each student allegedly came up to palpate her muscle.

The lawsuit alleges that while she was laying on the table, she felt someone forcefully grab her anus and vagina, neither of which is near the muscle that was the subject of the lesson. Mortified and unsure of what to do, Vitale got off the table as soon as she was able, according to the lawsuit.

After the exercise, the lawsuit says the professor excused himself and went to the restroom. While he was gone, one of Vitale's classmates told her it was the professor who had "assaulted" her during the demonstration, the lawsuit states. The classmate allegedly told Vitale, "Wow, he got a little handsie!"

Gresser, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment when reached by phone by NBC News on Thursday.

New York College of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Vitale sat through the remainder of the class that day after the professor returned, according to the lawsuit.

She later told another professor about the alleged assault, who advised her to report it to the dean and to submit a formal complaint. Vitale did not immediately take this professor's advice "because she was scared of what may result by reporting," the lawsuit says.

The following semester, Vitale routinely saw Gresser at the college and "he soon began to make off-hand remarks and inappropriate comments" to her about her body and appearance, which she said made her feel sick to her stomach, according to the lawsuit.

In August 2016, Vitale confided in another professor who said she was "horrified" to learn of the alleged assault, the lawsuit states. That teacher reported the alleged assault to the dean and instructed Vitale to do the same via email, the lawsuit says.

Vitale met with the dean in December 2016 to talk about the April incident, according to the lawsuit. At the end of their meeting, the dean promised to look into the matter.

Vitale generally earned A's and B's, but her grades suffered as a result of the alleged assault, the lawsuit says, and, for the first time ever, she failed two classes the following semester.

Vitale left the college in 2018 "in an effort to save herself from continued torment and harassment," the lawsuit states.

Gresser, a doctor of podiatry, is listed on the college’s website as an adjunct professor.

Vitale is seeking reimbursement for all of her tuition and related expenses, attorney's fees and other punitive and exemplary damages. NBC News was unable to reach Vitale at phone numbers listed for her. Lawyers for Vitale did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Image: New York College of Health Professions in Syosset, N.Y.