GW student to sue Boston University

A GW student will file suit later this month against Boston University and three fraternities there, in connection with an alleged rape at a rush party during her freshman year at BU.

Jessica Smithers, who transferred to GW last fall, claims BU and the two fraternities where she drank alcohol earlier on the evening of the incident are partially responsible for the assault in October 1995. She also is suing the alleged rapist and his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon.

“I want schools to take responsibility and concern for their students,” Smithers said. “Especially when they advertise the advantages of Greek life but don’t monitor fraternities.”

The lawsuit comes after a year of settlement negotiations between Smithers and BU fell through. Originally, she sought $3 million from the parties, but BU officials claim she lowered that demand to $450,000. Smithers said BU offered her $50,000 if she agreed not to tell her story. Neither party would confirm the other’s account.

Smithers said she had the choice to file the suit as “Jane Doe,” but chose to use her name in her statement of demands and in the media to humanize her story.

“I decided it was important enough to have a personal message stand out so people would really notice it,” Smithers said.

Sigma Phi Epsilon is unrecognized by the BU administration, and BU Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Herbert Ross said Lambda Chi Alpha and Chi Phi, where Smithers was served alcohol at rush parties that evening, also were unrecognized by the university at the time.

“I had concerns with the way the university polices fraternities,” Smithers said. “I don’t think there is a warning system out there for freshmen.”

She said the confusion about which fraternities are recognized by the BU administration shows the lack of control the university has over its Greek-letter system.

“They can’t even tell a few people the correct information,” Smithers said of the conflicting reports in the media about Lambda Chi Alpha and Chi Phi’s status.

“There’s only so much (the university) can do,” Ross said. “The No. 1 key thing is that if you have been drinking, you put yourself at risk.”

Smithers said she is filing the suit because she wants to encourage BU to take a proactive role in protecting students and warning them of the dangers fraternities represent.

“If BU had sent out a warning saying these fraternities were `off campus,’ maybe when the guy told me which one he was in, and invited me into his house, I wouldn’t have done that,” Smithers said

Smithers said BU also is responsible because it did not provide adequate services to keep her safe. BU’s escort service stopped running at 1 a.m., she said.

Smithers claims the two fraternities where she drank earlier in the night also are partially responsible for the assault because they served her alcohol without asking for age ID. She was 17 at the time of the alleged assault.

“We educate our members that in any event they hold, they are responsible for the actions that occur afterwards,” said Jason Pearce, director of communications for the Lambda Chi Alpha International Fraternity.

Chi Phi representatives had no comment on the case. A Sigma Phi Epsilon official said he was unaware of the incident.

“Sigma Phi Epsilon is not aware of any incident of any sort at Boston University,” said Jacques Vauclain, executive director of Sigma Phi Epsilon. “Our policy is always to cooperate with the authorities and the University officials when something occurs.”

Smithers and four friends set out for a night of fraternity rush parties on BU’s urban campus in October of her freshman year. Smithers said it was her first experience with the Greek-letter system, and she said she “is not a big drinker.”

Smithers said she and her friends stopped at the Sigma Phi Epsilon house to ask directions to Lambda Chi Alpha, where a rush party was being held that night. The Sigma Phi Epsilon member who gave the group directions, who Smithers said eventually assaulted her, invited them to an “after-hours” party hosted by brothers of the Chi Phi fraternity.

Smithers said she had two beers and a cup of spiked punch at the Lambda Chi Alpha party, where neither she nor her friends were asked for age ID.

The group decided to go to the Chi Phi party but were turned away at the door by a Chi Phi member who told them it was a private party, Smithers said. But she asked if she could enter the house to use the bathroom, and ran into the Sigma Phi Epsilon member who gave her directions earlier. He arranged for her and her friends to enter the party, she said.

“I thought it was great,” Smithers said. “He was nice, really charming. He never left my side except to get me some punch.”

Smithers said she thinks the punch she drank at the after-hours party contained drugs that made her feel “very sick and really strange,” but a letter from her attorneys to BU said “the chemical analyses necessary to prove such ingestion were not conducted at the time.”

After the party, Smithers said the alleged rapist walked her and her friends to a nearby intersection to help them find a cab. But she said her friends got in a cab without her, and she was left standing on the street with him. She said she began to feel sicker as the night went on.

“It was really strange. It wasn’t a drunk feeling – it was getting worse,” Smithers said.

She said he wrote his name and number on the back of a bank statement, and kept telling her “it’s okay.”

“I didn’t have any money, the (subway) had stopped running and the (BU) escort service had stopped,” Smithers said. “I remember when I was little and I was lost in a department store – that was what it felt like.”

Smithers said he walked her back to his fraternity house, promising her that one of his brothers would drive her home. But she said when they got back to the Sigma Phi Epsilon house, he told her all his brothers were asleep or passed out.

“He said I should just stay in the house – he was very accommodating,” Smithers said. “I didn’t want to insult him by letting him know I was scared.”

Smithers said he brought her to a spare room furnished with a dresser and a futon. When he left the room, she immediately fell asleep. She said she woke up in the middle of the night to find he had entered the room, removed her clothes and was raping her.

“I felt so incapacitated, but I tried to fight him off.” Smithers said. She said she was afraid to scream for fear he would turn violent or other brothers would join him in the rape.

Smithers said she spent the rest of the weekend at her parents’ home in the Boston suburb of Braintree.

After several weeks of deep depression, Smithers said she visited a counselor at her mother’s urging. Eventually, she said she reported the rape to BU’s judicial director at the beginning of November.

Ross said BU held judicial hearings and decided in August 1996 that the Sigma Phi Epsilon brother was “definitely responsible” for the rape, indefinitely suspending him from BU.

In an appeal hearing the next spring, the school again found him guilty and upheld his suspension from the university, Ross said.

He never was brought up on criminal charges, but Smithers notes the statute of limitations on filing charges is not up.

“There is nothing more I would love than to have him put away,” she said. “The general consensus is that (a criminal trial) is a very difficult process to go through.”Smithers said no physical evidence of the alleged rape exists because she threw away the clothes she wore that night.

“This really showed me what little understanding I had of sexual assault,” Smithers said. “It changed the way I see the world. I will never ever be the same.”

Smithers said many people are to blame for what happened to her that night, including herself.

“I definitely have a responsibility because I did go and did drink,” Smithers said. “But I was 17 and the reason we have a drinking age is because minors are not held responsible for their actions.”

Ross said Smithers should have taken responsibility for her actions that evening.

“She chose to violate the l
aw and be risky,” Ross said. “But then when things got out of hand, it’s the university’s fault.”

Smithers said the reason she is asking for so much money is because she believes it is the only way to “make the university feel the sting.”

“A settlement means agreeing to take responsibility and have warnings,” she said. “Part of the whole settlement issue is that I want to be a volunteer contractor for the university to improve safety.”

Smithers now lives in an apartment in Virginia, which she said is partly because of her hesitance to “be a part of the college scene” at GW.

“I don’t even know where the fraternities are here and I’ll certainly never go to one again,” she said.

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