Worcester Polytechnic Institute is alleging that a student who was raped during a study abroad program in Puerto Rico in 2012 is partially responsible because she had been drinking that night and chose to follow a stranger onto a dark rooftop, according to recently filed court documents.
The college made the arguments in response to a civil suit filed last year in Worcester Superior Court on behalf of the victim. The woman’s suit alleges the college failed to provide a safe environment for students.
In the documents, WPI’s attorneys argue the victim engaged in risky behavior, including excessive drinking, on the night that a security guard at her university-leased apartment building lured her to the roof and attacked her. The school also said the woman disregarded instructions and training about how to protect herself from harm.
In the court documents, the college said it is not seeking to blame the woman for being raped but challenged her claim that school officials were negligent in their protection of students.
Lawyers representing the woman and her parents responded in their own court filings and said the school’s argument is nothing more than an attempt to harass, intimidate, and re-victimize her.
“When you are saying a victim of rape caused her own rape, it is so offensive,” said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston and a consultant for the woman’s attorneys.
WPI said the woman — referred to in court papers as Jane Doe, to protect her identity — disregarded information, orientation, and training provided by the school, as well as her own common sense, and by doing so failed to take reasonable steps to protect herself from harm.
The court battle is playing out as colleges nationwide face increased pressure to crack down on sexual assaults. This case sheds light on the way some colleges have chosen to respond to victims’ allegations.
Bruno said the judge in the WPI case should set a legal precedent by ruling that a rape victim can never be held responsible for the crime.
“No one can contribute to their own rape, no matter what, because everyone has the right to be free from rape,” she said.
In a statement issued Monday, a WPI spokeswoman said the school takes the well-being of students seriously and provided support to Doe her family, and to other students, after the rape.
The rape occurred in April 2012 at the condominium building in San Juan where Doe, who was a third-year student completing a two-month research project, and other students lived. Part of the building was leased for student housing, and WPI required Doe to live there.
The security guard, William Rodriguez, was convicted by a unanimous jury in the state court of Puerto Rico and is serving a 20-year sentence, according to court documents.
Rodriguez was previously a state police officer in Puerto Rico but was suspended in 2011 after he was convicted of selling bullets to an undercover agent, documents show.
The civil suit alleges that WPI failed to ensure or require proper background checks for security guards. WPI contracted with a local company, Sea Breeze Inc., for the apartments, but there were no terms in the lease relating to security guards, the lawsuit said.
The suit, filed against WPI as well as several administrators, seeks unspecified damages from the college, including legal costs.
In a deposition, Doe was asked about her drinking that night. She told attorneys for WPI that she had only one watermelon drink at a hotel bar. She said it contained three or four shots of liquor, documents show.
The attorneys asked Doe whether her parents had taught her “don’t take candy from strangers” or how to protect herself from sexual assault. In describing the night, Doe said she expected a security guard to protect, not attack, her.
One of the attorneys then asked: “So it was okay to, despite that fact that you felt it was weird and you were surprised that he got into the elevator with you, you felt it was okay to go to the roof, a dark secluded roof with a man you know nothing about, whose name you don’t even know, and you felt that was not risky behavior? Do you understand my question?’’
“Yeah. No, I don’t think it’s risky behavior is my answer,’’ Doe said.
“Okay. Would you agree with me that if you had not gone to the roof with Mr. Rodriguez this incident wouldn’t have occurred?’’ the attorney asked.
“I can’t speculate that,” she answered.