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Woman Blames Study Abroad Program for Rape in Mali Print

An unusual negligence case arising from the rape of an American woman in the African nation of Mali could set a precedent that makes study abroad programs liable for failing to warn students of cultural differences with their host countries.

Dance class with AEA students in Mali

Stephanie Slattery lived in Mali as part of a program organized by Antioch University of Yellow Springs, Ohio. She alleges a bus driver working for Antioch Education Abroad (AEA) raped her after inviting her to have a cup of tea in the room he shared with his assistant.

Slattery flew to Paris for medical treatment. After she returned to Mali, she says in a complaint filed earlier this month in Ohio, AEA belatedly warned students “to never be alone with a male in his room because in Malian culture it is considered to be implied consent to have sexual intercourse.”

AEA's “negligent failure to warn of this cultural difference directly and proximately caused physical harm ... and severe, permanent emotional damage, pain and suffering to Plaintiff,” the suit says.

Nearly a quarter of a million Americans now travel abroad each year to study but the legal liability of study abroad programs for injuries to students is murky, with only a few cases having reached appeals courts. There appears to be no precedent for holding a program liable for failing to warn about cultural conditions in a host country.

A Michigan judge ruled in 2002 that Title IX protections against sexual harassment applied to women studying in South Africa but the harassers in that case were other students. King v. Board of Control of E. Michigan Univ., 221 F. Supp. 2d 783.

According to AEA's website, its "Arts and Culture in Mali" program “allows students to expand their creative faculties in the visual and performing arts in a cross-cultural learning environment ... Artistic apprenticeships, rigorous study, extended homestays, an independent project, and focused field trips are combined to create a safe and challenging environment for personal and intellectual growth.”

Slattery enrolled in the program while attending Eastern Michigan University. AEA, she says in her complaint, contracted with a Mali resident to “house, feed and hire a bus driver for the students, among other functions.”

On Sept. 29, 2007, the driver, Dramane Coulibaly, and his assistant allegedly invited Slattery “to have a cup of tea in their room, during which time Dramane Coulibaly spoke to his assistant in a foreign tongue, after which the assistant left the room. Dramane Coulibaly then forcefully assaulted and raped Plaintiff.”

AEA encouraged students “to interact with the local population, to learn the language and cultural differences,” Slattery says, but “negligently failed to advise [her] of the cultural belief in Mali that having tea alone in a man's apartment [is] considered implied consent to engage in sexual intercourse.”

The Florida Supreme Court has held that a student injured during an off-campus internship program could sue her college because it had sufficient control over her actions. Among other things, the school had the “final say" over where students did their internships, the court said in Nova Southeastern University v. Gross, 758 So. 2d 86 (2000).

That precedent may help Slattery establish that AEA had a duty to protect her from “foreseeable, reasonable dangers.” The tougher issue could be showing it breached that duty by failing to educate her about Malian sexual mores.

AEA says students in all its programs “receive thorough orientation to all program sites” and “field courses are periodically assessed to determine safety.” It could argue that sexual harassment or assault in countries like Mali is a known danger and Slattery did not act as a reasonably prudent person in going to Coulibaly's room.

One travel guide to Mauritania – like Mali, an Islamic country in western Africa –- warns: “If you are a female, there is no non-sexual reason, EVER, to go off in private with a man. If they ask you to step into an office, or back of the store, or whatever, don't. The men are aware that that is an unreasonable request, and no one would ask you for a private chat if they meant well.”

Slattery is also suing AEA for negligent hiring and supervision, alleging it knew or should have known of Coulibaly's "history of fathering multiple, illegitimate children with multiple women, and other disqualifying aspects."

Ironically, a page on the AEA website still offers a testimonial from Slattery about her studies in Mali. “I had the unique opportunity of spending my days with a group of photographers who were around my age," she says. "We awoke before the sun rose and worked until after it set. I learned an incredible work ethic.”

If nothing else, Slattery's case could revive support for increased oversight over study abroad programs and/or legislation that would clarify their liability. According to USA Today, 477 students from a California college who studied abroad from 1999 to 2005 reported 596 safety incidents, of which 229 involved harassment.

“What concerns me is that there may be a sizable gap between the best and the worst run study abroad programs,” a congressman said at a hearing in 2000. “That gap is likely to increase if there is a headlong rush to expand student abroad activities by institutions that are not prepared to do so. I fear that they may be tempted to cut corners or to send students to potentially dangerous areas without taking the necessary precautions.”

Rep. Pete Hoekstra's concerns may be even more pertinent today.

UPDATE

  • A court document filed Oct. 28, 2011 indicates that the case was settled.


  • This story linked by:


    By Matthew Heller
    9/30/09


     

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