Amherst study-abroad program folds over rape response (with documents)

Last modified: Saturday, February 01, 2014
AMHERST — The handling of an alleged rape of a student attending a University of Massachusetts-affiliated program in Costa Rica has led to the demise of an Amherst study-abroad program.

Living Routes on North Pleasant Street — which employed six people — is closing its doors after 13 years this week after UMass suspended its relationship over what a vice provost described as a “serious, and potentially life threatening, health/safety issue” involving a student enrolled in its program at the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica.

UMass officials say Living Routes failed to notify them about the incident until 20 days after it was first reported.

In correspondence reviewed by the Gazette, UMass did not state the specific nature of the incident, but Gazette interviews with those directly involved say it was the alleged rape of a 20-year-old student in the beach town of Montezuma.

The Living Routes program in Costa Rica is at the Monteverde Institute, an educational institution where other study-abroad programs are run.

The incident led to Monteverde Institute firing two of its program directors who helped the victim, including its academic director who ran the Living Routes program on the ground in Costa Rica.

The action by UMass forced Living Routes to cancel its spring 2014 programs, which affected 28 students from around the country. Without the spring tuition and significant cash reserves, the program’s board decided it had no alternative other than to shut down and dissolve the nonprofit organization, Executive Director Susan Gentile explained in a January newsletter.

Since its founding in 1999, Living Routes has placed 1,485 students all around the country in sustainable community and eco-conscious study abroad programs in countries including Costa Rica, India, Brazil, Israel and Scotland.

Gentile could not be reached for comment Thursday, but in the newsletter, she defended Living Routes’ handling of the incident in Costa Rica and said Living Routes maintained “the highest academic, programmatic and health and safety standards on all of our programs.”

Her letter claims that though UMass cited concerns about a safety matter during the fall 2013 program, “it did not seek all relevant information from our executive staff (despite our offers to provide) nor from our partner organization in the host country before making its decision.”

Information sought

A Dec. 27 letter to Gentile from Jack Ahern, vice provost for international programs at UMass, alleges that Living Routes learned of the sexual assault Dec. 2, but withheld the information from the UMass International Programs Office. UMass eventually learned about the incident Dec. 18 when a resident of Monteverde emailed Gentile and UMass faculty about concerns regarding the handling of the incident and treatment of the victim. After multiple requests for the identity of the student over the next few days, Living Routes on Dec. 22 notified Ahern to confirm the incident and provide the name of the victim, according to Ahern’s letter.

“Living Routes’ deliberate withholding of critical information is unacceptable in multiple respects,” Ahern wrote. The university “has grave concerns regarding Living Routes’ ability to fulfill its contractual obligations to be responsible for all health, risk and safety issues that may arise during a program’s term.”

UMass, the accrediting institution for Living Routes, requested the return of all payments made by UMass to the organization for its spring 2014 participants, estimated at $204,037. Ahern’s letter also stated that UMass planned to notify all other universities that have students enrolled in spring 2014 Living Programs. Attempts to talk with UMass staff Thursday were unsuccessful.

Several other colleges and universities sponsor study-abroad programs at Monteverde Institute, including a joint program between Mount Holyoke and Goucher colleges.

Joanne Picard, dean of international studies at Mount Holyoke College, said the college takes student health and safety seriously.

“We have no reason to think our students are not safe and not well supported on that program,” she said.

Daniel Greenberg, who founded Living Routes in 1999 and left as executive director in 2012, said it was unfortunate the incident has led to the closure of what he described as a valuable program that changed lives.

“I know all of the staff,” Greenberg said. “I have full faith and confidence that they acted with integrity and I’m sure UMass is acting with integrity. It’s a sad and difficult situation.”

Greenberg said Living Routes had extensive health and safety protocols and that the staff were “not withholding information lightly,” as he put it.

“It may have been the wrong decision, I can’t say,” Greenberg said. “I’m sure they spent many hours trying to do what’s best for the student and their relationship with UMass.”

Emloyees fired

In addition to ending the relationship between UMass and Living Routes, the incident has caused internal tensions at the Monteverde Institute and roiled residents in the local town.

Fran Lindau, the institute’s former academic director who ran the Living Routes program on site, and Catherine Murray, a former professor and course director at the institute, were suspended and ultimately fired and asked to leave over the incident.

Lindau was the first person to take the call from the victim after she had been assaulted during a trip to a beach town. She, along with Murray, immediately assisted the student with getting emergency contraception at the victim’s request, she said in a phone interview from Costa Rica. The women said they were following national and international protocols on rape, according to a written account that has been posted online by Murray.

Lindau said the institute’s leadership took exception to the way the women assisted the victim and for not immediately reporting the incident to Debra Hamilton, its executive director. Lindau was immediately pulled off the program and the pair were suspended and ultimately fired.

“There is no protocol at the Monteverde Institute in terms of handling a rape,” Lindau said. “I was following emergency medical protocols. I had spent the previous two years putting that emergency protocol together. I was the health and safety person for the institute.”

Lindau said she was in Hamilton’s office “within 24 hours” to alert her to what had happened after gathering facts and dealing with an emergency that involved traumatized students. The victim had traveled to the beach town with three other students and had been staying in a hostel.

Randal B. Smith, president of the Monteverde Institute’s board of directors, declined in an email to take questions from the Gazette “out of respect and confidentiality of everyone involved,” he wrote.

Smith addressed the matter in a letter to the institute’s community earlier this month defending Hamilton’s and the institute’s handling of the incident.

“I would caution all to respect the sensitive and confidential nature of the situation but most importantly, I want to assure everyone that the matter has been handled honorably and selflessly by many during this entire process,” Smith wrote on behalf of the board.

At the time, there were calls for Hamilton to step down, including from the victim, who circulated an open letter that has been posted online by a student blogger in Costa Rica. The woman alleged she was revictimized by being coerced into signing what appeared to be a legal waiver, and into reporting the incident to authorities, which she did not want to do in the assault’s immediate aftermath.

Lindau said it was that part of the response to her ordeal that became problematic for the student.

“It was one of those situations where it really got horribly out of control, mostly because of ignorance,” Lindau said. “It became a case of everyone trying to cover their own butts. It really should have been about a victim who is alone in a foreign country.”

Lindau, who is leaving Costa Rica next week because her work permit will expire, said she has kept in contact with the victim, who is now back the United States.

“She’s very upset about how this was handled,” Lindau said, referring to the response by the Monteverde Institute. “She feels this was so mismanaged that people should know. She’s a great kid and really strong.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

Letter to the Assembly of the Monteverde Institute from president Randal Smith