Middlebury College Case Draws Attention to Sexual Assaults in Study Abroad Programs

Colleges and universities are watching a recent case involving the punishment of a student accused of sexual assault during a study abroad program, reports The Associated Press.

This fall, Middlebury College was ordered by a federal judge to readmit a student it had expelled for a sexual encounter that occurred overseas. The accuser was from another school and had been studying abroad with the Middlebury student through Vermont's School for International Training (SIT). The Middlebury student said he had been cleared of wrongdoing by SIT, but the college expelled him after conducting its own investigation. The student sued Middlebury for breach of contract, and a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction so he could return to school. Middlebury is appealing.  

The number of American students studying abroad has increased significantly in the past two decades, but there is little comparable data for sexual assaults in those programs, said Brian Whalen, president of the Forum on Education Abroad, in the AP. The Forum has developed a database tracking everything from sexual assaults to robberies to illnesses and will release the first set of results (for 2014) this year.

According to the AP, the report found 18 sexual assault incidents from a pool of only about 10 percent of U.S. students studying abroad (relying on data from 350 programs in 101 countries). Therefore, the total number is likely much higher.

Applying U.S. federal law in investigations and punishment of sexual assault abroad is complicated. Lawmakers in various states are considering bills to mandate more requirements for reporting.

"As this case moves forward, I think universities will pay attention how the court determines whether SIT's investigation was sufficient or Middlebury College's secondary investigation was sufficient," said Michael Pfahl, associate counsel at Kent State University who studies legal issues raised by student conduct abroad, in the AP.


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The Associated Press