UMN pays $137,500 settlement to student sexually assaulted in Cuba

The student said her adviser on the program was negligent towards students and didn’t adequately report the rape.

by Austen Macalus

The University of Minnesota paid $137,500 last year to settle a lawsuit brought by an undergraduate student who said she was raped while studying abroad in Cuba in 2014, according to the Pioneer Press

A complaint filed in July 2017 in Hennepin County District Court accuses the University of mishandling the incident. 

In the complaint, the student said a local interpreter raped her multiple times after offering to help her on a research project. The group’s chaperone, a University lecturer, failed to supervise students on the trip and did not adequately report the assault, according to the complaint. 

“What happened to her was absolutely horrible,” said Natalie Feidt, the student’s attorney. “Our facts are quite extensive … I think our complaint shows what happened and what took place.”

The student, a political science major and Spanish minor, was enrolled in a study abroad research project run by the University’s Student Project for Amity among Nations program. She and other members of the group traveled through Puerto Rico and Cuba in summer 2014, according to the complaint. 

The Minnesota Daily does not identify victims of sexual assault. 

Working on her senior thesis, the student wanted to conduct research comparing living situations between Puerto Rico’s homeless and government housing in Cuba, a project that involved interviewing local residents. 

A local interpreter hired to work with the group offered to help her find residents willing to talk about their living situations. After walking around neighborhoods for several hours, the man invited the student to see his home as part of the project, according to the complaint.

But after showing off his home, the interpreter trapped the student in his bedroom and sexually assaulted and raped her several times, according to the complaint. 

The next day, the student and her roommate reported the attack to the group’s adviser, researcher Melisa Riviere, who failed to immediately report the incident to her superiors and “proceeded with her day as usual,” according to the complaint. 

Riviere was a lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts, but she left the University in April 2016, according to a University spokesperson. There was one complaint filed against her at the University that was closed. 

The complaint states that Riviere “scolded” the student, telling her that she should have known better than to put herself in that situation. The complaint said Riviere told the student that if she were more aware of cultural differences the incident would not have happened, making a comment that “at least [he] was a gentleman” and walked the student home after.

The following day, the student was forced to ride with the interpreter on the way to report the incident to the police, the complaint said. The student ended up not pressing charges because she would have to stay in Cuba during the proceedings. 

The lawsuit said Riviere did not supervise students sufficiently throughout the trip. Riviere consumed alcohol and drugs during the program, failed to monitor students’ safety and did not check if students were in their rooms at night, according to the complaint. 

Following the incident, Riviere told the student that “no one needed to know about what happened,” according to the complaint. 

Upon arriving back at campus, the student reported the incident to the University, but an investigation did not result in punishment for Riviere, according to the complaint. Riviere remained the adviser on the student’s thesis paper. 

The student’s lawsuit alleges the University, SPAN program and Riviere were neglectful in handling the incident. 

Riviere now works at The Council on International Educational Exchange, a nonprofit study abroad agency. Riviere was not immediately available for comment at the time of publication. 

This is a breaking news report, more information will be added as it becomes available.