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Amid a controversy surrounding a civil lawsuit alleging that Worcester Polytechnic Institute's negligence contributed to a student's rape, WPI's president says the school would never blame a victim for being raped.
A security guard working at a WPI-leased student apartment building in Puerto Rico was convicted of raping a student who was studying in the university's program there. The guard is serving a 20-year sentence.
Lawyers representing WPI in the civil case suggested that the student placed herself at risk by drinking alcohol and going with the security guard to the roof of the building.
WPI President Laurie Leshin issued a statement Tuesday to the university community, also obtained by WBUR, acknowledging concerns over the handling of the case:
"When a lawsuit is filed, the university’s insurance carrier at the time of the incident takes responsibility for the case. Although we parted ways with that provider several years ago, they are litigating this case. Their legal approach and language have not been vetted or approved by the university.
WPI has never and would never blame a victim for being raped. WPI strongly believes that the person responsible for this rape is the rapist. And he is in prison."
Naomi Mann, a clinical associate professor at Boston University School of Law, joined WBUR's All Things Considered host Deborah Becker to discuss the case.
On the defense tactic of blaming the victim for behavior that placed her at risk of rape:
"In civil cases, the easiest way, most of the time, to get a victim to drop a suit, is to ask these types of questions. And generally speaking, as well, there is a legal aspect to it, which is that where a school or an accused perpetrator of sexual assault can show that the victim was somehow partly at fault, the idea there is it can reduce the damages. In other words, if [the victim is] 10 percent at fault and the jury would award $1 million, the damages get reduced by 10 percent, so the victim would get $900,000. ... What's really interesting about this case is that the lawyers for the school said that the victim should be barred completely from recovering [damages] because she is more at fault than the school.
"What the school has made the decision to do is to basically say, 'Yes, you were raped by a person who was hired to protect you. But because you had some alcohol, you are more at fault than we are. And because you went into a part of the building with [him] that happened to be dark, you are more at fault than we are.' And that raises the specter of Title IX liability for the school because what Title IX and the Department of Education states is that women who attend schools and colleges should not be faced with a hostile environment."
On the defendants' claim that the victim signed a waiver releasing WPI from liability for any injury she may suffer while in Puerto Rico program:
"It is always a possibility that the institution would be found so negligent that there would be a public policy interest in overriding the waiver. It's always an option to say that [the victim] was more at fault. ... Another option [for the university], a very good legal option, is to say, 'Yes, I understand that something happened to you while you were at our institution. We as a school agree that it was terrible. However, we are not the negligent party. The negligent party is the company that hired the security guard, and these are the assurances that they gave to us, stating that the students would be safe with this security guard and in this building.' And it's very interesting, particularly at this time in the culture wars over sexual assault, that the school decided instead of bringing in someone else into the lawsuit, they decided to kind of fall into the 'blame the victim.' "
This segment aired on June 7, 2016.
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