Assaulted While in Study Abroad Program? School May Be Liable

Assaulted While in Study Abroad Program? School May Be Liable
Hope for Students Sexually Assaulted While Abroad (Photo Courtesy of UpSplash)

This is every student’s nightmare. Take a once in a lifetime opportunity to participate in a study abroad program only to be sexually assaulted thousands of miles from home. When that happened to one Rhode Island School of Design student she fought back and won.

Jane Doe* was a student at the Rhode Island Student of Design (RISD). In 2016 she participated in a study abroad program in Ireland. RISD offers students the opportunity to study for three or four weeks over summer break in a variety of countries including Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Africa, and South Korea.

Typically, these programs take place on the campus of a foreign university. In this case, the program utilized the facilities of Burren College of Art in County Clare, Ireland. Housing was arranged off campus a short distance away.

Jane and her fellow students from Rhode Island arrived on June 18, 2016. One of the students – the alleged assailant – was celebrating a birthday. It appears there was a party with several of the students drinking that night.

After the celebration, Jane went to her room. For some inexplicable reason, the school never handed out keys to the room locks. That meant and all the other students were sleeping in unlocked rooms. Later that night, the assailant entered Jane’s unlocked room. She was forcibly raped.

Jane reported the assault and sought medical attention in the morning. We aren’t sure what happened in the days after the attack but a court later found the school (RISD) acted appropriately and ejected Jane’s attacker. Unfortunately, Jane suffered severe emotional trauma and still suffers today.

Even though the assault took place thousands of miles away and in another country, Jane sued the Rhode Island School of Design. She did not name her attacker or the school in Ireland. While that may sound surprising, it was the right move. Suing a foreign defendant (the Irish school) for something that happened in Ireland would be next to impossible. At least trying to sue in a U.S. court.

And suing a rapist? How much money does a college student – make that an expelled college student - have? Probably nothing. The criminal courts are often more suitable for holding the actual sexual predator accountable for their crimes.

Jane claimed the Rhode Island School of Design was negligent in how they handled the housing for the students. Had each student been responsible to secure his or her own housing, RISD would have probably been let off the hook. But participants in this program had room and board supplied by the school. That means the school had an obligation to provide safe housing.

Ironically, as the case progressed, it was discovered that the rooms did have locks but no one from the school bothered to get the keys and hand them out. Without keys, students couldn’t lock their rooms at night.

In fact, as the case progressed, it was discovered another almost identical incident happened a few years earlier with RISD’s study abroad program in Rome. In the words of the judge,

"RISD knew that students placed in mixed-gender housing were at increased risk of sexual assault, and how critical lockable doors might be for their safety and security. The rape was a direct and proximate result of the negligence of RISD and its officials."

Although RISD acknowledged the duty to provide safe housing, they refused to pay so the matter went to trial. Jane was awarded $2.5 million plus retroactive interest to the date she filed her suit.

Calculating Damages in Sexual Assault Cases

Depending on the state, victims of sexual assault can seek monetary damages for pain and suffering, medical and counseling expenses, mental distress and often punitive damages. The question we often hear from rape survivors is, how does the jury or judge come up with a number?

There is no formula. In Jane’s case, the trial was heard by a judge only. There was no jury.

In setting the damages at $2.5 million, Chief Judge John J. McConnell said,

“Jane's rape was a catastrophic event in  her  life. She suffered intensely at the time of the rape and during the immediate period that followed. Four years later, she still suffers from its negative consequences, and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Right after the rape and for the next week, Jane ‘would vacillate between states of panic and ... disbelief and ... felt unable to ... accept what was  going on.’ She ‘felt completely dissociated from [her] body and like [she] was just powerless and really, really, really upset.’

Jane spent most of her initial time after the rape in bed, "in and out of sleep pretty much for the “entire 24 hours."

“The rape ‘severely’ impacted her time in the studio during the Ireland Program. Jane would spend "most of [her] time wandering the grounds. Her artwork took a turn after the rape, becoming increasingly violent and disjointed as she struggled to concentrate and continue making art.

“Back at school, Jane was unable to complete the coursework for the additional academic concentration that she added after the Ireland Program. Since the rape, her ability to concentrate has not been as good as it was before. (‘It's difficult for me to sort of maintain focus on certain tasks for a long time, and a lot of times I'll have trouble keeping energy up as well. So I'll get tired much more quickly and sort of have trouble  applying  myself,  and  it's had a big impact on my coursework.’).

“The rape hurt her relationship with her then boyfriend Brian. (‘It was really, really difficult, and it was something that we never really found a way to talk about. And I was struggling a lot, and it definitely was a contributing factor  to things sort of crumbling. The communication between us was really, really difficult at that time and kind of forever after that.’

“Jane suffers from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") as a direct result of the rape. Her PTSD causes avoidance behaviors, as well as depression, fear, paranoia, agitation, and other negative emotions. The rape has created exceedingly difficult issues for Jane, leading to feelings of helplessness and depression.

“The trauma from the rape has interfered with her ability to engage in some physical relationships, especially with men. Jane does not want her father or brother to touch her and they no longer hug each other. (‘It's changed things pretty significantly. I feel discomfort definitely along the lines of physical touch. So, it's difficult for me to even hug some of my male family members. I still do, but I feel -- it's impossible for me not to be triggered and have sort of a really intense bodily reaction just to being in, like, close proximity. Even with, like, my dad and my brother, it's awful.’)

“Jane has a feeling of violation that never goes away. (‘It's like the feeling of violation just sort of never, never goes away.’)

“Jane's PTSD symptoms interfere with future planning.  Although Jane is extremely bright and creative, the rape has caused her to experience self-doubt and question her ability to function as an artist.

“Jane has had periods of recurring nightmares that have to do with being pursued, trapped, or pinned down. Often it is an attempted rape. She calls out and screams in her sleep. She also struggles with flashbacks of the assault multiple times a week. (‘I have nightmares consistently. They usually have to do with being pursued or trapped or pinned down.  Quite often it's an attempted rape.  It's gotten, I think, maybe a little bit better in that I only have nightmares a few times a month now; but when it's bad and when sort of things are flaring up, I'll have multiple nightmares a week and it's really difficult for me to shake the next day and difficult to get out of.’)

“The adverse impact on her  life appears to be regular and permanent.”

For many readers, Jane’s feelings ring true.

The civil justice system can’t unwind the hurt and trauma caused by the offender. Long after the physical wounds heal the emotional scars remain. The only thing the court can do is try to compensate victims for their loss. It’s an imperfect system.

A secondary benefit of large monetary awards is the deterrent effect it has on schools. We hope having to pay millions of dollars causes the school’s leadership to be more careful in the administration of study abroad programs.

Taking 2 minutes to distribute room keys would have saved Jane from a lifetime of pain.

Is My School Responsible for What Happened to Me at a Study Abroad Program?

The case of Jane Doe and Rhode Island School of Design is a lesson for both victims of violence in study abroad programs and school administrators. Simply because students are off campus (and in another country) doesn’t end the school’s responsibility to keep students safe.

The Rhode Island case was a bit unusual in that the students were housed in coed rooms without locking bedrooms. But the liability would be the same if the school housed students in ground floor rooms without working window locks or without chaperones.

Schools certainly aren’t responsible for every incident that occurs off campus. But if the school provides housing as part of the study abroad program, they are responsible to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of their students. That could mean locking doors and windows, well-lit hallways, security, safety planning and the like.

If you are the victim of a sexual assault during a study abroad program, call us. You may be entitled to significant monetary damages and help with medical and counseling expenses, tuition reimbursement and lost opportunity costs.

To get the maximum compensation for your injuries, you need lawyers who are aggressive, experienced and compassionate. Brian Mahany and his handpicked team have a long history of pursuing sex offenders and others responsible for these horrific crimes. Brian is a former police officer, prosecutor, and board member of the Family Violence Project. He is also a former volunteer with the Sexual Assault Crisis and Assault Center. We have female attorneys for survivors who are more comfortable working with a woman advocate.

To learn more, visit our sexual assault survivors information page. Ready to see if you have a case? Brian and his network can be reached online, by email [hidden email] or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are kept strictly confidential.

*We never print names of sexual assault victims without permission or if the case relates to someone who is not our client, we only print if the name has already been widely disclosed in the media.

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