Seven current and former University of Connecticut students filed a discrimination complaint Monday with the Office of Civil Rights, claiming the university violated their rights by showing “deliberate indifference” when they reported being raped or sexually harassed.
Four of the seven students told their stories at a press conference organized by their nationally-recognized attorney, Gloria Allred, who has filed similar complaints on behalf of students at other universities. It’s unclear if the U.S. Department of Education will decide to investigate the Title IX complaint, but if it does and finds there’s a basis for the allegations, the university could face sanctions or the loss of federal funding, Allred said.
Title IX protects students from sexual discrimination at any education program or school that receives federal funding.
Four of the seven female students who told their stories Monday at the Marriott in downtown Hartford spoke about the impact of the incidents, and the university’s response or lack of response, on their grades and their ability to function within the university community.
Kylie Angell, who graduated from UConn in May 2013, said she was raped by a classmate in a dorm. She reported the incident to UConn’s Office of Community Standards. A hearing took place and the perpetrator was expelled for “sexual misconduct.”
Then, two weeks later, he was back heckling her in the dining hall. Angell said she went to the police to the report the harassment and to find out why he was allowed back on campus when he had been expelled.
“The officer told me ‘women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter or rape is going to keep on happening till the cows come home,’” Angell recalled.
She said the university failed to inform her that her perpetrator had filed an appeal. “The only explanation I was given was that the Vice President of Student Affairs felt that expulsion for having raped me was ‘too severe,’” Angell said.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Carolyn Luby, said she wrote an open letter on the Internet about how the university was “indifferent to issues of sexual violence,” and it unexpectedly went viral.
“I began receiving rape and death threats through every facet of the Internet, as well as from students on campus. The magnitude of this backlash made national headlines, and the harassment I was subjected to was even trivialized on the Rush Limbaugh radio show,” Luby said.
When she reported the harassment, the police told her to “wear a hat” so that people wouldn’t recognize her. She said she logged the complaint with the university five months ago and has yet to hear back.
“The administration is in constant denial of the existence of rape culture and the institutional inequality on this campus,” Luby said. “The deliberate indifference the university displays provides the camouflage for perpetrators to continue their violent behavior with little to no consequence.”
Then there was Rose Richi, who is currently a junior at the university. She said she was raped by a male student athlete and reported it to the Office of Diversity and Equity, but it was never acknowledged. When she went to the police the detective taking her statement “got the date wrong, made spelling and grammatical errors and made it clear that my experience didn’t matter.”
Richi continued, “He even told me he did not believe me. He stated he was just gathering facts. My criminal case ended due to the alleged lack of evidence.”
Another student, Erica Daniels, said she filed her rape complaint with UConn’s Office of Community Standards and was told there was not enough information to go forward with a complaint. She said they failed to investigate and interview those with knowledge of the rape.
“All of this has greatly impacted my senior year,” Daniels said. “Something as simple as walking to class now is turned into a stress and anxiety filled trip.”
The 48-page complaint emailed to the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is expected to remain confidential, according to Allred.
Asked about the complaint Monday, UConn President Susan Herbst directed reporters to university spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz.
“Stephanie can help you, I don’t really know much. I don’t know, I mean we just heard about it,” she said, adding that she expected to be briefed about the issue.
However, Herbst said she was confident that the university was a safe place for women.
“We have a wonderful police force. We have one of the only large-university police chiefs in the country who’s a woman” Herbst said, referring to UConn Police Chief Barbara O’Connor. “She’s extremely experienced in these matters.”
Herbst added that the university also had an “excellent” Title IX officer. In a press release issued later, Reitz said the university takes the allegations extremely seriously.
“We are confident at this point that these cases were handled thoroughly, swiftly, and appropriately,” she said in a statement.
UConn is prohibited from discussing specifics of the cases under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, she said.
“However, if the students involved in these cases wish to waive their privacy protection afforded by FERPA with regard to the complaints, the University would be willing to share the details of how these cases were handled, in the interest of transparency,” she said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was on the Storrs campus Monday for a ceremonial bill signing of legislation calling for a $1.5 billion investment in the school. Malloy said he heard about the complaint when he arrived at the school.
“Listen, I think we need to do everything in our power to make our students safe on all of our campuses and in our state,” he said, adding that the state is safer than it was before he became governor.
Malloy acknowledged that Allred was a high-profile lawyer and her announcement had the potential to dampen the publicity around the state’s investment in UConn’s science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines.
“It probably doesn’t help. She could’ve picked a better day, but this is an important issue that she’s addressing and it’s an issue that I work on day in and day out, along with the lieutenant governor and others, but you know, the point is that crime is down substantially since January of 11,” he said. “I’m very proud of that. People can talk about particular situations, but when you look at the big numbers, we’re doing extremely well.”
Asked if he thinks parents should feel safe about sending their children to UConn, the governor said it could always be safer. However, he said the school’s admissions numbers have gone up.
“If you talk to the young people who are going to school here, they love it. They’re coming back in record numbers, they’re applying in record numbers,” he said.
Several students on the Storrs campus Monday reported feeling generally safe at the university, but some female students said they occasionally feel unsafe walking at night.
Aurora Fischer, a senior who is majoring in psychology, said the campus has a “weird sort of culture.” She said Herbst could do more to ensure that sexual assault is an issue that students are taught about when they arrive at the school as freshmen. Fischer said students already are required to participate in training on alcohol abuse, and students are tested after that training. Fischer said students should be tested on sexual assault as well.
“I feel like Susan Herbst can do something more. It seems like the university doesn’t address the problem of sexual assault enough. UConn definitely needs more sexual assault education. Especially as a female, Susan Herbst has to do a better job addressing sexual assault because it’s so rarely talked about on this campus,” Fischer said.
Sara Nelson, a senior majoring in social studies education, agreed the university should work to promote a positive environment for women. Although she said she felt safe overall, Nelson said she takes precautions when walking alone on campus at night.
“There have definitely been times when I’ve been walking by myself and I walk a little faster than I would during the day,” she said.
Emily Boushee contributed to this report.