By Ava Berger and Matthew Eadie
Boston University appeared in court on Thursday to argue a motion to dismiss an alleged sexual assault claim from a California woman who said she was “groomed and sexually abused” by a Chelsea High School teacher in the late 1980s, while BU was managing the school district.
The Trustees of Boston University and the City of Chelsea filed separate motions to dismiss the claims at the Suffolk County Superior Court. The motion to dismiss was taken under advisement by Judge Rosemary Connolly and the decision whether to dismiss the case will be announced at a later date.
According to the lawsuit filed in December 2022, the former student, using the pseudonym Jane Doe No. 99, is suing Paul Cheffi, a science teacher at CHS until 1990, the City of Chelsea and BU for around $1.1 million. The former student, now nearly 53 years old, was 14 when the alleged abuse began in 1986 and lasted throughout high school, court filings show.
BU and Chelsea are both being accused of violation of Massachusetts fair educational practices law as well as negligence, according to court documents.
Cheffi denied all allegations against him, according to court filings. He has not responded to requests for comment.
Strephon Treadway, an attorney for the City of Chelsea appeared at the hearing, along with Jeffrey Pyle, an attorney representing BU.
In 1989, the Massachusetts state legislature appointed BU to oversee Chelsea Public Schools due to students reporting the state’s lowest SAT scores and about half of high school students not graduating. The agreement expired in 2008, according to BU Today.
The agreement between BU and the City of Chelsea, led by then-president of BU John Silber, sparked nationwide controversy and challenges to its constitutionality.
Silber and other BU officials wrote extensively about the partnership in various educational and academic journals during the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
“Boston University, responding to a request from the city government of Chelsea, undertook a task based on the proposition that the precipitous decline in our schools is reversible,” Silber wrote in the January 1994 edition of the Journal of Education. “Our schools worked once and in Chelsea we are showing how to make them work once again.”
The complaint filed in December 2022 claims Cheffi “engaged in sex acts” with the former student in his car and at his home in Revere from 1986 until her graduation in 1990. Despite “public displays of affection” by Cheffi with the student in his classroom at the school, according to the complaint, no action was taken, although both CHS and BU “[were] aware or should have been aware” of Cheffi’s alleged actions.
“As [Cheffi] indicated in his response to the lawsuit, he unequivocally denies all charges,” Cheffi’s attorney James Cipoletta said earlier this week.
BU’s attorneys are arguing that the agreement, which was approved by the Massachusetts legislature in 1989, gives BU immunity to liability from the negligence claim and that the statute of limitations on sexual harassment charges has expired.
Mark Itzkowitz, an attorney representing the former student, also appeared before Connolly on Thursday and argues that since it wasn’t until 2022 that she was aware of the harm caused by the alleged sexual assault, the statue of limitations has not expired and that the agreement between BU and Chelsea violated the Massachusetts Constitution to begin with and should not be considered.
Government agencies, like school systems, are given special protections under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act and can not be held liable to the same standard as other entities.
Carmen Durso, another attorney representing the former student, who was part of the litigation team against the Archdiocese of Boston in the early 2000s sexual abuse case, said BU should not have this same protection because it is a “violation of the Constitution.”
“We’re arguing that with respect to BU, they can’t get that kind of special protection because it’s not available to anybody else,” Durso said before the hearing.
Connolly chose to review the arguments all three litigation teams made on Thursday and issue a decision on whether or not to dismiss the case at a later date.
This story was updated on Oct. 20. This story will continue to be updated.