State Attorney General Maura Healey said it is “outrageous” that lawyers for Worcester Polytechnic Institute have suggested that a former student who was raped is partially to blame for putting herself in harm’s way.
Healey, in a phone interview Thursday, said the school’s argument that the victim of the crime was somewhat at fault in the incident, which occurred in 2012 in Puerto Rico during a study abroad trip, perpetuates an “unfortunate” culture of blaming rape victims.
“Never should a rape victim be held responsible for the atrocities committed against her,” Healey said.
The comments came after the Globe reported earlier this week that WPI argued in legal filings last month that the rape victim, who was then a college junior on a study abroad trip in San Juan, acted negligently by drinking and following a security guard onto the roof, where she was raped. Those lawyers were employed by the school’s insurance company, AIG.
The guard, William Rodriguez, was found guilty of rape and is serving 20 years in prison, according to court documents.
But Rodriguez, a former state trooper in Puerto Rico, had been convicted of selling ammunition to undercover police before he was hired as the security guard at the condominium building where students lived, court records show.
Last year, the victim’s family filed a separate lawsuit in civil court against WPI, claiming the school was negligent in its duty to keep students safe.
In other negligence cases, it is common for defense attorneys to say the person suing is also partially at fault. But Healey joined attorneys and sexual assault experts Thursday when she said this situation is different because it involves rape.
“We’re not talking about a slip and fall here, or a simple incident where certain kinds of defense strategies are often employed,” Healey said. “We’re talking about rape.”
The attorney general would not say whether the college was negligent, declining to comment on specifics of the case.
After news of WPI’s legal defense strategy broke earlier this week, WPI’s president responded Tuesday in an e-mail to students and said the school no longer employes AIG. Nevertheless, attorneys from that company continue to handle the matter on behalf of WPI, she said.
On Thursday, WPI President Laurie Leshin agreed with Healey’s comments.
“We agree with the attorney general. This defense was not vetted by WPI, we did not have input into the strategy, and we renounce this line of questioning. ... WPI has never and will never blame a victim of rape,” Leshin said in a statement e-mailed by a spokeswoman.
Healey said the situation highlights a need to reform the culture that surrounds rape, one that can discourage women to come forward or subject them to unwanted attention.
“Rape victims are not the right ones that need to be held accountable,” Healey said.
About 23 percent of undergraduate women nationwide said they have been the victim of sexual assault or misconduct since entering college, according to results of a major nationwide survey released last year, which surveyed 27 schools, including Harvard and six other Ivy League institutions.
The results of the survey of 150,000 students, which was commissioned by the Association of American Universities, confirmed prior studies suggesting that, nationally, roughly one in four women are sexually assaulted while in college.
Colleges are required to report statistics about sexual assaults that occur on campus to the federal government, and that data is available online, although it is only updated through 2014.
The schools are not required to disclose statistics for crimes that occur in study abroad facilities that the college does not own or control, according to the US Department of Education. However, if the school rents or leases space for students in a hotel or housing facility, as was the case in Puerto Rico, schools must disclose crimes that happen there.
Records show that WPI did disclose the rape, although individual statistics for rape were not collected federally prior to 2015, so the 2012 crime was reported under the category of “forcible sex offenses,” according to WPI.
Schools are also required to issue annual security reports to their students. The most recent report disclosed the rape, in the category of a forcible sexual offense. In 2014, the most recent data available, no crimes were reported to have occurred on WPI study abroad programs, according to the report.