Rape victim calls for change: Costa Rican institute pledges policy review on sexual assaults, assembling task force

Last modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — The victim of a sexual assault that led to the shutdown of an Amherst study abroad program in January said she hopes the mismanaged response to her rape serves as a wake-up call for educational leaders and the institute where she studied.

The woman, a student of the Five College area, was raped while studying abroad with the former Living Routes program at the Monteverde Institute in Monteverde, Costa Rica. The incident occurred while she had taken a trip away from the institute to a beach town with friends last Thanksgiving weekend.

She said the institute, where U.S. colleges and universities such as the University of Massachusetts and Mount Holyoke College have accredited programs, needs to take an exhaustive look at the way it responds to victims of sexual assaults after she reported being revictimized by the institute’s administration in the days after her assault.

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“They need to accept the situations for what they are and not go pointing fingers,” she said in a recent interview with the Gazette. “The issue of rape, it’s always pushed on the victims to the point at which they begin blaming themselves for what happened.”

In late December, UMass Amherst, which accredited Living Routes, suspended its affiliation with the program citing the organization’s withholding of “critical” information in the case.

The victim, who spoke with the Gazette on condition of anonymity, had previously written a victim statement that had been posted online. Her statement was highly critical of the Monteverde Institute’s executive director, Debra Hamilton, who the student says was preoccupied with legal waivers and pushed her to report the crime to authorities days after the assault. Her statement had called for Hamilton to step down.

“I cannot continue in the knowledge that she has not only not been reprimanded for how she treated me, but that the very people who helped me have been punished instead,” she wrote.

“It’s been hard not to blame things on myself,” the victim said. As a matter of policy, the Gazette does not identify the names of victims of sexual assaults.

The student says she wanted her perspective made public because she believes the institute erred greatly in its response to the incident and in the firing of two employees, Fran Lindau and Catherine Murray. The two women assisted her in the first 48 hours after the assault, including helping her to find legal emergency contraception at her request without going to a health care facility.

The institute had found fault with the women, one of whom was the institute’s academic director and coordinator of the Living Routes program, for not contacting the executive director immediately — and for the employees’ approach to seeking medical assistance for the victim without the administration’s knowledge. The victim at the time had refused to go to a medical center.

But Lindau maintains they followed international and Living Routes protocols for rape response. She notes that they were dealing with an emergency, and that they contacted Hamilton within 24 hours of the incident.

The victim said the firing of Murray and Lindau, people who most supported her in a time of crisis, exacerbated her pain at the time.

She said she hopes to see policies reviewed and changed to be more sensitive to victims’ needs.

“I feel like I’m in a position to help other people in similar situations,” the student said during a February interview. “I don’t want someone else to be subjected to what I was subjected to. It’s just painful.”

After losing their jobs, the two professors who helped her in the immediate wake of the assault have since left Costa Rica. UMass’ suspension of its affiliation with the program forced the 13-year-old study abroad program on North Pleasant Street to close down completely because of the loss of tuition money. That meant trips for 28 students from around the country were canceled and about a half dozen employees lost their jobs in Amherst.

The victim said the Monteverde Institute needs to seriously consider policy changes regarding its response to sexual assaults and, as she put it, “shouldn’t punish people who have been assigned to deal with these instances.”

Review, changes pledged

In a detailed statement to the Gazette this week, Hamilton, the Monteverde Institute’s executive director, wrote that the institute has already begun a review of its emergency response protocols for sexual assault and hired a crisis management consultant. It plans to form a task force of staff, medical and legal professionals and women’s groups to evaluate and revise the institute’s emergency response protocols as well as student orientation and staff training.

“The staff and board of the Monteverde Institute are deeply saddened by the events of the past few months,” Hamilton wrote. “We are committed to improving; we will share what we learn with our colleagues working in study-abroad programs in hope that they can benefit from our experience.”

The task force, she wrote, “will work with each sending school to pinpoint any discrepancies between their protocols, (Monteverde Institute’s) protocols and Costa Rican law — and to determine how to resolve them.”

Hamilton said the institute shares the goal of ensuring the health and safety of students studying abroad, but cautioned that in the event of a student assault, the requirements of Costa Rican law and its international interpretations, the protocols of U.S.-based sending institutions and the Monteverde Institute, and a student’s decision about how to respond may not all be in accordance with one another.

“The situation is not unique to the Monteverde Institute or Costa Rica,” wrote Hamilton.

Hamilton did not respond to questions about the victim’s allegations of mistreatment and insensitivity on her part. She stated that the institute stands behind its policy of supporting students with a range of services, including medical, psychological and legal help in Costa Rica.

“Based on student feedback, we are considering how we and the sending schools orient students before and upon arrival in Costa Rica,” Hamilton wrote in a statement on behalf of the institute. “We are also considering adjustments to the policy of how we allow college students to ‘check-out’ from the institute’s supervision to travel to other parts of the country. We are working to ensure the MVI staff are prepared to launch a coordinated team response to a crisis situation.”

She wrote that the institute has already identified “gray areas” in the procedures outlined by sending schools regarding international protocols and interpretations of Title IX, the federal regulation that provides legal protections for U.S. students, including victims of sexual assaults.

“Some sending school protocols, generally developed for use in the U.S., don’t necessarily provide guidance for all situations or anticipate the complexities of circumstances in a different country,” Hamilton wrote. “Those complexities within Costa Rica must also be assessed. Addressing these gray areas and identifying gaps in guidance is a discussion that needs to be undertaken on a one-to-one basis with each of the sending schools.”

Communication breakdown

The victim said she bears no hard feelings toward the now-closed Living Routes program or the Monteverde Institute but said the institute’s leadership must ensure that other victims of sexual assault are not, as she put it, harassed and revictimized. She said that was why she circulated her statement that was later published by a local blogger online.

“I wanted to speak out in a way that wouldn’t hurt the Monteverde Institute as a place,” she said. “It’s crucial to the economy of the whole Monteverde area.”

She said she would be upset if it were shut down.

As for Living Routes, which ran study abroad programs in countries such as Costa Rica, India, Brazil, Israel and Scotland, there is evidence to suggest that it erred by not informing UMass of the assault sooner, though the student says she believes the organization meant well.

In a Dec. 27 letter from Jack Ahearn, vice provost for International Programs at UMass, to Susan Gentile, Living Routes’ executive director, Ahearn wrote that the university was suspending its affiliation with Living Routes over what he described as a “serious, potentially life threatening, health/safety issue,” involved a student enrolled in its program at the Monteverde Institute.

Living Routes failed to notify UMass of the sexual assault until 20 days after it was first reported and the university viewed it as the “deliberate withholding of critical information,” according to Ahearn’s letter.

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.”

The study abroad program refunded UMass approximately $204,000 in tuition payments, which the university had requested, UMass spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons said this week.

Living Routes disputed the university’s claims, with Gentile writing in a January newsletter that UMass “did not seek all relevant information from our executive staff (despite our efforts to provide) nor from our partner organization in the host country before making its decision.”

The university had found out about the sexual assault of a student enrolled in the program it accredits when a resident in Costa Rica wrote to Gentile and UMass faculty on Dec. 18 about concerns regarding the handling of the incident and treatment of the victim. Living Routes informed UMass of the incident on Dec. 22, according to Ahearn’s letter.

“I can see how Living Routes possibly could have been trying to protect my identity,” the student involved said. “It’s sad. I really liked Living Routes. I picked Living Routes for a reason.”

She said it’s unfortunate that poor communication led to the closure of Living Routes.

“I still look back on it as an amazing experience,” she added. “It’s makes me sad that other students in the future won’t be able to take advantage of their programs.”

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


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