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BU assault case will test limits of schools’ oversight

Student Village 2 opened in 2009. The 26-story dormitory houses about 960 students.
Student Village 2 opened in 2009. The 26-story dormitory houses about 960 students.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The entrance to Boston University’s Student Village 2 dormitory certainly looks safe: Two uniformed security guards sit at a desk flanked by monitors streaming video from surveillance cameras in the 26-story building. No one gets in without an ID or an authorized host.

But one night during Head of the Charles weekend in 2015, two unescorted MIT students entered 11 unlocked rooms without being detected. One of them, Samson Donick, came upon a sleeping student and sexually assaulted her until her screams drove him from the room; he ultimately pleaded guilty and received five years probation for the attack.

Now, “StuVi2,” as the gleaming tower is known on campus, has become a testing ground for the duty of colleges and universities to keep students safe. The victim, known publicly only as Jane Doe, is suing the university and top administrators, arguing that BU officials gave students a false sense of security in the dorm while failing to enforce security policies that could have prevented the attack.

BU contends that Jane Doe could have protected herself if she had simply locked her bedroom door as officials recommend. She “was given the tools to assure her safety, a door with a sturdy lock, but she elected not to use it,” BU lawyers wrote in a court filing that also included a section entitled “The University Made No Definite Or Certain Promise To Keep Students Safe.”

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In response, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Rosemary Connolly has admonished university attorneys for seeming to blame the victim.

“Here, this student was just in bed sleeping. That’s all she did, and . . . the thread through BU’s brief is that it’s her own darn fault this happened,” Connolly said during a June hearing.

BU officials declined to comment for this story.

Long gone is the era of “in loco parentis,” when colleges acted much like parents, freely setting curfews and otherwise restricting student freedom in order to keep order on campus. Today, as BU’s attorneys wrote in a court filing, “College students are young adults who are given the freedom to make responsible decisions. As a matter of law, universities do not serve as surrogate parents.”

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Nonetheless, as Connolly wrote in rejecting the university’s motion to dismiss the case in October, “BU owes a duty to the plaintiff beyond that of an ordinary landlord.”

A case involving the sexual assault of a student at Pine Manor College in Brookline has, for decades, set the minimum standard for the obligation of Massachusetts institutions of higher learning. In 1977, the attacker broke into a freshman woman’s room, took her away from her dorm through an unsecured gate, and assaulted her, undetected by the campus patrol guard who was responsible for checking the gates — all breaches that the state Supreme Judicial Court said could have been prevented only by the school.

“No student has the ability to design and implement a security system,” wrote Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Liacos for the majority in the 1983 opinion. The student was awarded a verdict of $175,000 from both Pine Manor itself and William P. Person, its vice president responsible for the security system, but the trial judge later reduced it to $20,000 on the school’s end due to a state law limiting judgments against charitable institutions.

But more recent cases have seemed to limit schools’ responsibilities.

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In 2018, a state superior court judge dismissed a lawsuit against Northeastern University from a student who argued that the university’s failure to install automatically locking doors had allowed an intruder to enter her room and assault her while she was incapacitated by date rape drugs.

In a major decision earlier that year, Massachusetts’ top court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit by the father of an MIT student who had committed suicide, finding that, although institutions could be held accountable for student suicides, the school should not be held responsible in that case.

The family of 25-year-old graduate student Han Nguyen argued that the school knew of Nguyen’s struggles with mental health but failed to provide adequate services for him. MIT, supported by BU and 17 other Massachusetts schools, argued that Nguyen had autonomy to make his own life decisions and that there was little advisers could do when he refused help.

The state’s highest court agreed.

“Universities are not responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of their students’ lives,” wrote Associate Justice Scott Kafker in the unanimous decision. “University students are young adults, not young children.”

In the StuVi2 case, BU’s lawyers drew on the Northeastern and MIT holdings in shaping their motion for dismissal, emphasizing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s rejection of the old “in loco parentis” standard, and the Superior Court’s finding that non-automatic locks were adequate.

The “guiding principles apply with equal force here: even if the University has a duty to provide reasonably safe dormitories, it is unrealistic to require (or expect) a university to assume the role of insurer or custodian over its adult students,” BU’s lawyers wrote.

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Jeffrey Beeler, who argued for the Nguyen family against MIT, said he sees a growing pattern among universities.

“They are very quick to brand the students who will be attending . . . as being adults legally, and therefore pretty much on their own relative to the risks they will face in a college environment,” Beeler said. “What colleges have been trying to do is convince courts to view them as a bystander to risks that are foreseeable in connection with their students.”

StuVi2 became an instant landmark when it opened in 2009: 26 stories of floor-to-ceiling windows towering over the Massachusetts Turnpike and an entrance with the elegance of a hotel lobby. Boston University called the dormitory, which houses about 960 students, “a jewel in the crown of BU’s campus.”

It also had a prominent 24-hour security presence, including not only guards, but scanners where students must swipe their IDs to reach the elevators. Visitors can enter only after both they and their host have provided identification.

Donick, an MIT sophomore, signed in as a guest of a female BU student in the early morning hours of Oct. 18, 2015, before leaving his host behind. Despite BU housing policy requiring guests to remain with their hosts at all times, Donick and at least one other man roamed the building alone deep into the night.

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The two MIT students didn’t show up on surveillance cameras as they went from floor to floor upstairs, making their way through upper stairwells and hallways where there are no cameras or regular patrols, according to court depositions. They easily entered unlocked apartments on seven floors before coming to the front door of Jane Doe’s apartment on the 13th floor, which she shared with a suitemate.

Then, “at approximately 2:45 a.m.,” Donick “entered the suite and then individual bedroom of [Boston University junior] Jane Doe, who was sleeping, and sexually assaulted her,” according to court documents. Doe woke to the assault and screamed at Donick to leave, then rushed to wake her suitemate when he fled, according to the Suffolk district attorney at the time.

Donick eventually pleaded guilty to indecent assault and battery, assault and battery, and breaking and entering.

Other students who lived in StuVi2 said they would have been equally vulnerable to attack. One former student said she was fortunate that her roommate was awake when the two MIT students entered their apartment that night.

“I kept thinking, you know, what if my roommate hadn’t been awake?” said the student, who asked that her name not be published. “It’s definitely not uncommon for students to leave their doors unlocked when they’re physically home.”

Jane Doe argued that BU and individual administrators bear responsibility in the incident for failing to enforce the guest policy, selecting locks without an automatic function, and not pressing students to keep their bedroom doors locked.

Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore, one of the named defendants, acknowledged knowing that students sometimes kept their doors unlocked — and that the school’s guest policy was not consistently enforced. “We don’t want to create a place where we’re disciplining every student who does not walk a resident out of the building,” Elmore said in a deposition. “It starts to feel stifling and restrictive on the total environment that they’ve got to live in.”

Doe’s lawyers argue that BU didn’t crack down on unlocked doors even after the 2015 attack, noting that in 2016 another unescorted guest entered multiple female students’ StuVi2 suites and asked them sexually explicit questions.

“It is stunning that BU takes the position that its security measures in October 2015 were ‘reasonable,’ and that this event was unforeseeable, given that an almost identical event happened just over a year after the assault of Jane Doe,” her lawyers wrote.

Elmore acknowledged in his deposition that an e-mail warning students to lock doors and follow guest policy was sent out to students only after the second incident, in 2016.

Lisa Parlagreco, who is cocounsel on a brief for another sexual assault case against Northeastern University, said the challenge for Jane Doe’s attorneys will be proving that BU’s security failings were more like the Pine Manor case and less like those in the Northeastern and MIT cases. If Jane Doe does prevail, Parlagreco said, it will send a message “to any other college or university in the Commonwealth that might be following BU’s model . . . that they continue that practice at their peril.”

The case of Jane Doe v. Boston University is scheduled to go to trial sometime in 2020. Currently named defendants include Elmore; David Zamjoski, BU’s director of residence life; and Thomas Robbins, former chief of the BU police. Doe argues that all of them should be held accountable, saying, “BU promised and represented to me and my family that the dormitory would be safe, that BU was committed to preventing sexual assault, and that the safety and security of students was their number one priority.”

“My family and I relied on these representations,” she said.

Naba Khan can be reached at nabakhan@gmail.com. She is majoring in journalism, film and television at BU.