Christine Stuart file photo
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney (Christine Stuart file photo)

The governor and top legislative leaders threw their support behind a Republican request on Thursday for a legislative review of the University of Connecticut’s sexual assault policies in response to allegations raised earlier this week.

House and Senate Minority Leaders Rep. Lawrence Cafero and Sen. John McKinney called for a public hearing on the issue in response to the complaint filed Monday by seven women who claimed the university’s responses to their sexual assault cases were inadequate.

In a letter to the chairs of the legislature’s Higher Education and Public Safety Committees, Cafero and McKinney requested a hearing to review UConn’s policies to prevent sexual assault, support its victims, and punish those responsible.

“We need a complete airing of these charges of sexual abuse and rape on campus and, just as troubling, UConn’s response to the claims by these young women. We need a complete airing before the public on these matters,” Cafero said in a statement.

McKinney said he found the allegations especially troubling as the father of two daughters. 

“It is our obligation as a legislature to ensure that state law is being followed and also to determine whether improvements in the law are required to adequately protect victims of sexual assault. As public officials and university administrators, we must work together to ensure our universities enforce a zero tolerance policy on sexual assault,” he said.

In a statement, UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said the school would be happy to share its policies with the General Assembly.

“The university would welcome the opportunity to participate in a public hearing on these issues, as well as to discuss our policies and processes that relate to sexual assault prevention and education and the services available to all members of our community who are victims sexual violence or harassment,” she said.

At a Wednesday press conference, UConn President Susan Herbst called the allegations regarding the school’s response “misguided.” She said the university works hard to prevent sexual assault.

“This is a university that is devoting extraordinary resources toward preventing sexual violence in all its forms,” Herbst said. “I completely reject the notion that UConn somehow doesn’t care about these all-important issues, because nothing could be further from the truth.”

But the request by the two Republicans led to statements from the press offices of Democratic leaders Thursday lending support to the idea of a formal hearing.

“I absolutely support the idea of holding public hearings on UConn’s sexual assault prevention and response procedures,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said, adding that Herbst had assured him she’s taking the allegations seriously. “As a parent and someone whose wife spent years working with victims of sexual assault, my heart goes out to the women that came forward this week.”

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey issued a press release saying UConn should have a “zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence on campus.” Sharkey also chided Republicans for raising the issue through the news media.

“There is no reason why this effort needed to be partisan – I’m happy to work with my Republican colleagues,” he said. “Sexual assault on campus is too important an issue for political grandstanding.”

Senate President Donald Williams and Majority Leader Martin Looney said parents and students needed to be publicly reassured that the state’s campuses were safe.

“Sexual assault is a serious issue on college campuses all across the United States, and it’s important for the University of Connecticut to publicly make clear its policies, procedures and efforts to investigate and prevent these types of crimes,” they said. “Anything less is intolerable.”

However, Higher Education Committee Co-Chairwoman Sen. Beth Bye said she wanted to have a clear idea about what the goal of the hearing was before she agreed to hold it. She said the legislature heard testimony on the subject last year when it passed legislation requiring colleges and universities to adopt and disclose policies related to sexual assault and intimate partner violence. She said the state needed to make sure schools were following their own policies.

“There’s certainly some questions that need answers but we also have victims that need protecting,” she said. “I’m fine with hearings I just want to make sure it’s something that’s going to lead to something.”

Public Safety Co-Chairman Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, said he wanted to reach out to legislative leaders and his co-chairwoman on the possibility of conducting hearings. Dargan pointed out that Herbst and UConn Police Chief Barbara O’Connor were both women and have been adamant in saying the university properly responds to such cases.

Still, Dargan said in a phone interview that he was open to having the hearings.

“I don’t think Larry [Cafero] or McKinney are trying to do this in a negative setting or politicize it,” he said. “. . . These are some serious allegations. It is horrible to hear about them. Any parent who sends their kid off to school wants them to be safe.”

Sen. Toni Boucher, the ranking Republican on the Higher Education Committee, released a statement Thursday saying the hearings give the university the opportunity to strengthen its policies.

“The seriousness of the situation requires immediate response and action to make sure this does not happen again. Proper procedures and strict protocols must be put in place so that our college campuses are made as safe and secure as they possibly can be,” she said.