UConn sexual assault case prompts legislators to meet

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Storrs - posted Mon., Nov. 18, 2013
Four former and current UConn students filed a federal lawsuit on Nov. 1 alleging that the university did not adequately preserve their Title IX rights. Contributed photo. - Contributed Photo

During a legislative informational hearing on Nov. 13, members of the Higher Education and Public Safety Committees heard from students and panels from state colleges and universities regarding their policies for sexual assault prevention and response procedures. After the start of the legislative session, legislators will consider whether changes need to be made to Public Act 12-78, enacted in 2012, which makes it mandatory for private colleges and universities in the state of Connecticut to have policies and procedures regarding reporting of sexual assault, and help for victims. The hearing was prompted by lawsuits filed recently against the University of Connecticut.

Last month several former and current students filed a complaint through the federal Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the university did not respond adequately to their sexual assault complaints. On Nov. 1, four of the women - Rosemary Richi, Kylie Angell, Carolyn Luby and Erica Daniels - filed a federal lawsuit against UConn. The complainants are being represented by New Haven attorney Nina Pirrotti and high-profile civil rights attorney Gloria Allred. The lawsuit seeks an injunction and damages for discrimination on the basis of gender and retaliation in violation of Title IX, which guarantees opportunity for an equal education regardless of gender.

Luby, who started as a student at UConn in 2009, alleges in the lawsuit that she was drugged at a party on UConn’s campus during her first year and later taken, unconscious, to the hospital by ambulance. After the assault, Luby claims that she was not provided with any support through the university, nor directed toward any resources for help.

According to the lawsuit, after several failed attempts to work with UConn’s administration to draw attention to various issues surrounding sexual violence at the university and at university-sponsored programs abroad, Luby wrote an open letter to UConn President Susan Herbst in April of 2013, which was published on an academic website. The letter pertained to the adoption of the new, more “intimidating and aggressive” UConn husky mascot. Luby claimed that in response to the letter, she began receiving threats of violence and that the university did nothing to defend her.

According to the lawsuit, Angell was raped by a classmate on July 5, 2010, while working as a UConn Residential Life Summer Conference Housing Supervisor. UConn, through the Office of Community Standards, conducted a hearing concerning Angell’s rape allegations. The hearing resulted in a finding that the perpetrator was guilty of at least four charges, including: possession of drugs, providing alcohol to a minor, breaking and entering, and sexual misconduct. Angell was informed that, as a result of the findings at the hearing, the perpetrator had been expelled from the university and was forbidden to enter the UConn campus.

Just two weeks later, according to the lawsuit, Angell was approached by the perpetrator in a dorm dining hall. When she fled, the man’s friend followed her out and asked, “Kylie, how does it feel that he’s back on campus?” Angell alleges that she received no support from the University when she approached them with her fears and concerns regarding the situation. The lawsuit alleges that during a report of the harassment to the UConn Police Department, an officer reprimanded her for not reporting the crime as soon as it had happened. The officer also said, “Women have to just stop spreading their legs like peanut butter,” noting that if that did not happen, rape would, in the officer’s words, “keep on happening ’til the cows come home.”

According to the lawsuit, Erica Daniels was drugged and raped by a co-worker and fellow UConn student at his apartment in Willimantic on April 15, 2013. The lawsuit alleges that Daniels reached out to Uconn for help, and that the University responded “with indifference.”

According to the lawsuit, Rosemary Richi was raped by a member of the UConn football team in September of 2011. Richi also alleges that she reached out to UConn for help, but the university and campus police responded “with indifference.”

After the Title IX complaint was filed on Oct. 21, the lawsuit claims that remarks made by UConn President Susan Herbst “furthered the hostile educational environment to which the plaintiffs have been subjected," after their assaults. Herbst's statement, issued to the university’s Board of Trustees claimed that, “The suggestion that the University of Connecticut as an institution could somehow be indifferent to or dismissive of ANY report of sexual assault is astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue.”

According to UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz, “UConn adopted regulations in early 2012 on sexual assault prevention and policies, and several of those provisions were discussed during public hearings before legislative committees as they worked to create the 2012 law later that spring.” The policies are continually reviewed and updated as warranted, according to Reitz.  For information about UConn’s sexual assault policies, see http://www.uconn.edu/resources/.

In addition, said Reitz, Herbst last spring announced the creation of a Task Force on Civility and Campus Culture, a group that has been meeting for months and has held public discussions and welcomed input. Co-chairs for the committee sent out an open invitation to all students last month, said Reitz, “to write with their thoughts on these topics, including any concerns, suggestions, and information they wanted to share.” That information will be part of the task force committee’s report, which is expected to be provided to Herbst sometime in December, said Reitz.

State Rep. Tim Ackert (R-8), who attended the legislative informational hearing on Nov. 13 as a member of the Higher Education Committee, weighed in regarding testimony that he heard from women involved in the UConn lawsuit. “It is too simple just to say that I am disturbed by this violence, and to listen to their stories [was] heart wrenching. The fact that these [incidents] took place on our college campus highlights the need for increasing awareness and also increased penalties for the perpetrator,” said Ackert.

Ackert called Public Act 12-78 a comprehensive piece of legislation aimed at reducing sexual violence for students and staff on our college campuses. “This legislation is one of the strongest in the nation,” said Ackert. But a law is only as good as enforcement, he added. “We, as legislators, can put forth the most comprehensive legislation with the best of intentions, but if it’s not enforced, it’s just words on a piece of paper,” said Ackert. “There are two areas I will put forth for amendments to the legislation; the first regarding funding to implement the law and second a process to make sure the colleges are complying with PA 12-78.”

Regarding the adequacy of UConn’s protection of the women and the university’s response to their assaults, Ackert said, “It is hard to judge whether UConn, or any other colleges, can completely prevent sexual assaults and other violence on campus, but we can certainly do a much better job of handling these reports, protecting the victims, getting them the help they need and treating them with more compassion. Further, we learned that there is much to be done to foster an environment on our campuses which encourages the reporting of sexual assault and a zero-tolerance policy for offenders.”

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