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Northeastern Student Sues University Alleging Mishandling Of Rape Accusation

Northeastern University student Morgan Helfman, at a press conference announcing her lawsuit against the university
Craig LeMoult/WGBH

A Northeastern University student has sued the school and several administrators, alleging they failed to prevent her rape on campus by another student, and that the school failed to protect her rights. 

Northeastern senior Morgan Helfman says she was raped by another student on the night of October 31 of her freshman year. Her lawsuit says she’d been drinking at a Halloween party held by a resident assistant for the university, and was unable to consent to sex, because she was intoxicated. She complained to police and school officials afterwards, but the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office declined to bring criminal charges against the male student, and a board of students tasked with reviewing the case found no violation of the school’s code of conduct.

At a press conference announcing the suit, Helfman said she’s scared, but proud of what she’s doing by filing the lawsuit.

“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 that what they did was wrong," Helfman said.

Helfman’s attorney, Mark Itzkowitz, said it was inappropriate for the university to put a case like this before students.

“You’re basically asking them to make quasi-legal determinations, and these are college students who have no experience with this sort of thing," Itzkowitz said. "So if you’re going to put them in that type of position of responsibility you have to train them exceedingly carefully you have to monitor and supervise them exceedingly carefully, and it’s our contention that that did not happen.”

Helfman’s lawsuit against Northeastern claims it violated Title IX—the federal law against sex discrimination at schools—in part because the male student was allowed to continue living in the same dorm and attend the same classes as Helfman.

“At the least, they should have moved him out of my dorm,” she said.

John Foubert, an expert on sexual assault prevention at Oklahoma State University, said not taking those steps may have violated Helfman's Title IX rights because it could have created a hostile environment.

“If you have a student who has been sexually assaulted, or you have reason to believe could have been sexually assaulted by another student, it’s incumbent on the institution to separate them in some meaningful way, even during a process of finding out more about what occurred, whether it actually does ultimately violate a sexual misconduct policy,” Foubert said.

Harvard Law School Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen said Title IX can cut both ways, as it’s been used around the country in the last year both by alleged victims and by those accused of sexual assault.

Gersen said Helfman's suit also includes a new kind of claim. It says Northeastern failed in its duty to adequately train and supervise staff who investigate and adjudicate sexual assault claims. Gersen says if that argument works in court, “that really opens up a huge frontier of liability for schools.”

Because most schools are required to have staff that do that kind of work, and they could become regular targets of lawsuits.

“Another kind of claim is that a student says, ‘You know, I had a contractual relationship with the school and the contract had some implied idea that they were going to treat me fairly,’” Gersen said.

Helfman’s suit said Northeastern broke that contract, as well as one that says the university would provide a safe environment for her.

Gersen said sexual assault cases like these can be fraught with uncertainty for universities.

“They’re in an impossible position because they’ve got respondents on the one side, complainants on the other side," she said. "Both sides think that schools are not getting it right.”

A statement from a Northeastern spokesperson said they had not yet seen the lawsuit. The statement said the safety and well being of students, in an environment that fosters mutual respect, is the university’s top priority. 

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