New precedent: Security of traveling Students
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
In a decision published February 2nd, Judge John J. McConnell, Chief Justice of the United States District Court of Rhode Island, ruled in favor of "Jane Doe" in her suit against the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Awarding her $2.5 million in compensatory damages as a result of a sexual assault she suffered at the hands of another student during a school sponsored trip to Ireland.
Ms. Doe was an RISD student who attended a three-week summer program arranged by RISD in Ballyvaughn Ireland at the Burren College of Art and Design. The housing procured by RISD consisted of four-bedroom houses at the Burren Atlantic Hotel and Holiday Village. Both male and female RISD students were assigned to the same housing units, and while the doors to each house were able to be locked from the inside the individual bedroom doors were not lockable without the use of a key. RISD staff did not request keys for these doors from the Burren Atlantic Hotel, and did not discuss door locking with the students.
On their first night in Ireland a male student who was housed in the same house as Ms. Doe entered her room while she was sleeping and proceeded to sexually assault her. Ms. Doe notified the RISD Teacher's Assistant who was serving as the Resident Advisor for the trip the next day and RISD assisted her in seeking medical treatment and removed the offender from the trip.
Ms. Doe's suit alleged that RISD owed her a duty of care to provide safe housing during her travel abroad as part of a RISD sponsored program, and that its failure to provide her with a lockable bedroom door was the proximate cause of her sexual assault. She also alleges that RISD should have been on notice of the risk of sexual assault due to non-lockable bedrooms in coed housing units after a similar sexual assault of a RISD student on a school sponsored trip to Rome in 2013.
Judge McConnel's summary judgement found that:
RISD did owe a duty to Ms. Doe to provide safe housing while in Ireland.
Failure to provide a locking bedroom door was a breach of the standard of care, and that "the breach of duty by RISD was obvious to anyone."
RISD did not provide training on "how to identify safety issues" to the Resident Assistant who was serving as RISD's representative on trip.
"RISD could have and should have inspected the students' housing before they arrived. Moreover, RISD could have and should have conducted a risk assessment before allowing students to reside in the houses used for the Ireland Program."
If Ms. Doe had been able to lock her door the perpetrator would not have been able to gain access and sexually assault her. Therefore the sexual assault "was a direct and proximate result of the negligence of RISD and its officials."
This case should cue colleges and universities that provide international, or even overnight domestic, travel experiences for their students to reassess the precautions that they have in place to ensure their students' safety while traveling.
A few key takeaways are:
Staff responsible for overseeing travel should receive training in ways to ensure a safe and secure environment.
Students traveling abroad should be given training in risks that they may experience and measures that they should take to in order to protect themselves.
Students should not be housed in locations where sleeping quarters cannot be secured by the occupant.
The school should conduct a risk assessment, and an inspection of housing units for safety and security issues prior to allowing students to occupy them.
The full opinion on this case can be found here: https://ecf.rid.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2018cv0010-91