Metro

Northeastern student sues over 2013 sexual assault

Northeastern University student Morgan Helfman spoke during a press conference at her lawyer’s office about the alleged mishandling of her 2013 sexual assault case.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Northeastern University student Morgan Helfman spoke during a press conference at her lawyer’s office about the alleged mishandling of her 2013 sexual assault case.

A Northeastern student who said she was raped after a 2013 Halloween party has sued the university, asserting that the college mishandled her case and that it failed to keep students safe.

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 31, Morgan Helfman, 21, said that as a freshman she was raped by a fellow student in their dormitory after he escorted her home from a party at the apartment of a Northeastern resident assistant where alcohol was served.

The suit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, names the university as well as five individual administrators. It seeks punitive damages and attorneys fees.

Advertisement

The counts are negligence, breech of contract, violation of Title IX, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, violation of the state equal rights act, and misrepresentation of crime statistics by the school.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Northeastern said in a statement Thursday that it had not seen the suit and does not release personal information about students.

“The safety and well-being of our students, in an environment that fosters mutual respect, is the university’s top priority,” said spokeswoman Renata Nyul.

According to the lawsuit, Northeastern ultimately determined that the male student had not violated the student code of conduct and he remained living in Helfman’s dorm and also in one of her classes. The male student admitted to performing sexual acts on Helfman, it said.

At a news conference Thursday, Helfman said the incident and its aftermath were traumatizing, and she thought about transferring to a different school. But she said she decided to stay and become active in student government to push for reform to the school’s sexual-assault policies.

Advertisement

Helfman, now in her fourth year at Northeastern, said she hopes her suit will ensure that what happened to her won’t happen to others.

“I’m not ashamed by what happened,” she told reporters. “If this can help other people come to terms with what happened and speak out, then it’s worth it, and I want the school to be held responsible and know what they did was wrong.”

Helfman’s attorney, Mark F. Itzkowitz, said Northeastern should correct “institutional deficiencies” that failed to make a safe environment for students.

Itzkowitz said he believes Northeastern under-reported the number of sexual assaults and rapes that occurred on campus over the past five years. He based that assertion on data from a recent campus survey that found a higher rate of such incidents compared to what the school reported to the federal government.

“Northeastern must be held responsible for the consequences that Morgan will live with,” he said at the news conference, held at his offices on Federal Street.

Advertisement

The suit describes in detail the night the alleged rape occurred. Alcohol was served and students played drinking games despite the fact that the host was a residential assistant and many students were underage, it said.

The RA lived in an off-campus apartment on St. Stephen Street that is rented and supervised by Northeastern.

Helfman had taken three shots of rum before the party and then drank more at the event until she became ill, according to the lawsuit. The male student offered to escort her back to her dormitory but instead, took her to his room in the dorm, where she said he raped her.

Two days later, Helfman and her mother reported the rape to campus officials, the suit says, and later a student conduct board, composed of students, convened to determine whether the male student had violated Northeastern’s conduct code.

The board determined he had not, according to the suit. Helfman appealed several times, but the decision was allowed to stand.

Helfman wished for criminal charges to be filed against the male student by the Suffolk district attorney, but they were not filed, her attorneys said.

In a statement Thursday, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said the office does not comment about specific cases except at the request of the victim’s attorney, who did not make such a request.

“Speaking very broadly, however, we review every allegation of sexual assault to determine whether we can prove the case to a jury,” spokesman Jake Wark said. “If we are unable to present the evidence necessary to secure a conviction, we nonetheless try to support the victim through a variety of programs and services.”

Helfman said she requested that the male student be transferred to another dormitory and switched out of the class they had together, but the university denied the request. Instead, she said, the school offered Helfman the chance to relocate but she declined.

Helfman, who is set to graduate in December 2017, is studying political science and sociology.

“The expectation is when you drink you’ll get hung over the next day. . . . You don’t expect to be sexually assaulted, and if that does happen the school will take care of it and they’ll treat you like a student and they won’t stop giving you your rights,” she said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.