NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Two Tulane students say their university-sponsored trip to India, called “Compassion in Action,” turned into a nightmare that left them “virtually stranded in the hills of India,” assaulted and threatened with being kidnapped to Pakistan. They say they managed to graduate despite “the atrocities committed against them.”
In their complaint in Orleans Parish Court, Christine Blalock and Karine Surmenian say that every year “Tulane solicits students to participate in a four-week, intensive service learning program which is conducted in partnership with the School of Social Work.”
Tulane calls the trip “Compassion in Action,” and claims that it offers social work-related experience, in which Tibetan Buddhist monks guide the students in Dharamsala, in northern India.
Blalock and Surmenian say they were Master’s students in Tulane’s School of Social Work in 2009 when they decided to take the school-sponsored trip. They say they were “high academic achievers and both had over 3.5 averages.”
“On the trip to India, students volunteered with the Sisters of Mercy, Mother Theresa’s social-service program, and met with Tibetan mutual-learning partners,” the women say. They also traveled to Tso Pema, where they learned about Tibetan culture and performed community service projects.
The Tulane professor accompanying the trip was nonparty Ronald Marks, Ph.D., who the women say was not responsive to their needs.
For instance, Blalock says that at the beginning of the trip, she became sick: “Dean Marks took no interest in monitoring her care. As a matter of fact, she had to seek a doctor and pharmacy on her own when Dean Marks continued to ignore her medical condition. Eventually, she had to seek separate accommodations so she could get well.”
Blalock says she told “Dean Marks” that she was unhappy with the way things were going, and that “she felt she was the victim of sexism because Tim (a fellow classmate) was allowed to do the very trip she applied for, even though she had taken steps to prepare herself and he had not.”
At that point, she claims that “Much to the plaintiffs’ surprise, Dean Marks hastily drafted a handwritten letter on a ripped piece of notebook paper which he demanded that plaintiffs sign. He told them that Tulane was no longer liable for them and forced them to sign his handwritten form. During this ordeal, Dean Marks commented that his handwritten form was probably not legal. Even though both plaintiffs were now ill, they reluctantly signed the form. The form was authorization for them to return home on September 17, 2009.” The women say they signed the form on Sept. 11.
They claim that on Sept. 13, after a “lively debate” with a monk, after which “the monk hugged plaintiffs and thanked them for the candid exchange of ideas,” Dean Marks told them, apparently after receiving a garbled report, “that they had to leave by 3 p.m. that afternoon.”
As they had planned to on the 17th, they say, they “had no lodging and airplane reservations while being virtually stranded in the hills of India.”
They add that “Because the Dalai Lama was in town, all hotel rooms in the area were booked,” but they managed to find a vacant room, and then “walked around lost.”
That day when they were in a taxicab, they say “a Pakistani man jumped into the taxi and threatened to take them to Pakistan.”
“Later while riding in a cab, Plaintiffs had to fight off and barely escaped from a driver who was attempting to take them up a mountain,” according to the complaint.
After that, they say, they were stalked by “a young man who said he was Tibetan/Indian from New York. He followed them to a restaurant and joined them without an invitation. He continued to stalk them and followed them back to their hotel room.” Later, they say, he barged into their hotel room after they were asleep and they “had to beg the man to leave.
“Horribly, on September 15, 2009, the same man used an unauthorized key to enter Plaintiffs’ room after they had fallen asleep. He crawled in bed with Plaintiff Surmenian. She was able to throw him off of her. He then crawled into plaintiff Blalock’s bed and sexually assaulted her. After frantically screaming that she has swine flu, the man left the room. Plaintiffs’ money was stolen also. After experiencing this horrific experience,” the women say, they “had to persevere until September, 17, 2009, when they were finally able to return home.”
But they say that “Instead of showing empathy for plaintiffs, Tulane hauled them in for academic review as a result of a report Dean Marks made about their conduct in India. In spite of the atrocities committed against them, plaintiffs graduated in December 2009.”
They seek damages for medical expenses, failure to exercise proper care, failure to train, and pain and suffering. They are represented by Marion Floyd of Kenner, La.