Eckerd College

ST. PETERSBURG — Eckerd College has been sued for negligence for what the lawsuit said was failure to control access to the campus that led to the rape of a student by an off-campus intruder.

In a suit filed Dec. 2 in district court, a former student says she was sexually assaulted in October 2017 by a man who followed her into the bathroom of a friend’s room at a campus residential hall.

A police investigation determined the alleged assailant and another person had gained access to the campus by jumping the perimeter fence.

The incident occurred after the victim had several drinks at a friend’s dorm room following an off-campus party. She later attended a college-sanctioned party at a dormitory complex. Tampa Bay Newspapers does not identify the victims of sexual assaults.

The college had been aware of its “sexual assault problem,” for several years, the suit claims. In 2014, Eckerd College President Donald Eastman released “An Open Letter to Students” in which he announced “an educational and awareness campaign to attempt to minimize sexual harassment and assault in our community.”

In the statement, Eastman linked assaults to excessive drinking and urged students to limit their alcohol consumption.

The suit said Eastman’s statement “amounted to blaming the victims and abrogating Eckerd’s legal responsibility for the security of its students and dormitories.”

The college has a “de facto policy” permitting drinking at campus parties at which underage students consume alcohol, the suit says.

Eckerd’s 2019 crime statistics report showed seven women were raped at on-campus dormitories in 2016, and nine in 2017, including the plaintiff. During that two-year period, 10 women were “forcibly fondled” while in a dormitory, the suit said.

The lawsuit says that at the time of the assault, the campus was aware of “dangerous criminal conditions that created a likelihood” of further attacks on women. Four months after the assault, Eckerd’s staff held a meeting focused on keeping dorm parties safe.

The year after the plaintiff’s assault, the director of campus safety proposed 14 improvements to increase campus safety, including fixing broken fences, more lighting and additional training for campus security officers, the lawsuit says.

In an email to Tampa Bay Newspapers, Eckerd spokeswoman Robbyn Hopewell said, "The college’s policy is to refrain from commenting on matters in litigation."