State lawmakers heard first hand Wednesday the stories of the four University of Connecticut students who are suing the school in federal court for allegedly failing to address their sexual assault complaints.
One of the students, Rosemary Richi, who said she was sexually assaulted by a football player in a dorm room on campus, choked back tears as she tried to explain how excited she was when she was accepted to the university.
“I loved the school before I even moved in,” Richi said. “When I graduate in a year I want to be able to say I loved my school and right now people expect me to say I hate my school, but that isn’t true either.”
“I’m here today, not to bash the school, but offer solutions,” Richi said.
Richi said she reported her alleged rape to the Office of Diversity and Equity, but never heard from them. Then she reported it to the campus police department. She said the campus police officer “actually told me he did not believe me.”
She continued: “He said all he was doing was taking down the information I provided to him.”
After they told her there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue a case against the student, the police, according to Richi, didn’t tell her she could report the incident to the Office of Community Standards, which handles complaints about behavior of students on campus.
She said she hopes university will develop a communication process between the police and the administration. “They’ll work together, instead of apart, to perform a thorough and responsible investigation,” Richi said.
The two legislative committees held the four-hour meeting Wednesday to review the sexual assault prevention procedures at the University of Connecticut and other state colleges and universities. The committees are debating whether new legislation needs to be introduced when they reconvene in February.
Each of the four UConn students represented by attorney Gloria Allred had a different story, and each came to report their allegations of sexual assault or harassment in a different way. Some reported to the Office of Community Standards, others reported to police, and some told their story to a trusted professor or adviser who was forced to report the sexual assault to authorities.
Elizabeth Conklin, associate vice president of UConn’s Office of Diversity and Equity and Title IX coordinator, said victims usually report their assaults to someone they trust.
“In some cases this may be the police, student health services, or another member of our coordinate team, but in other cases this will be a trusted professor, adviser or coach,” Conklin said.
Conklin said that UConn President Susan Herbst and the Board of Trustees recognized that there were multiple routes to entry for a complaint, so they came up with a sexual assault response policy in January 2012.
But after Wednesday’s presentation by Conklin, Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Gilbert, UConn Police Chief Barbara O’Connor, and state legislators were still confused about where students are supposed to go to file a complaint if they have been sexually assaulted.
In the 337-page informational packet the university provided to lawmakers Wednesday, there were more than a handful of phone numbers students could call to report an incident.
Sen. Stephen Cassano, D-Manchester, wanted to know “who is in charge?”
He said the students each testified that they went to a different department or division to report their assault. He said that as a father of three daughters, he understands sexual assault is a generally under-reported crime.
But “if I’m not going to the right place to prosecute a crime against my daughter, I’m going to be really upset at the university,” he told UConn officials.
Conklin said there isn’t really a wrong door for victims. She said it’s the university’s intent to increase reporting, which may sound counter-intuitive, but increased numbers don’t necessarily coincide with increased incidents.
“From my perspective, increased numbers mean we are doing our job well,” Conklin said. “And I think we’re seeing that trend. Of course, I want to be clear our goal is to have zero reports of sexual harassment, but only because there are zero incidents occurring.”
She said the university has strengthened its policies and trainings to help increase the number of reported incidents.
According to UConn Police there were a total of 13 “forcible sexual assaults” reported on the Storrs campus in 2012.
Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said she understands that the university wants victims to be able to go to the place where they feel most comfortable, but “you also need some clarity so the process isn’t confusing and doesn’t deter someone from reporting.”
Flexer added, “How do you find that balance? I think they’ve got to do a better job of it.”
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chaired Wednesday’s meeting. She said it doesn’t matter how much information they’re putting out there if the victims aren’t finding their way toward help.
“That’s the problem out of today that we have to fix,” Bye said.
She said all these colleges say they have people trained to deal with this, yet students are still feeling they’re not getting the help they need.
Bye gave UConn officials credit for being forthcoming and said she believes Herbst tried to be “more clear today in her statement.”
At a press conference following the filing of the Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, Herbst said “the suggestion that the University of Connecticut, as an institution, would somehow be indifferent to, or dismissive of, any report of sexual assault is astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue.”
The four victims, who later filed a federal lawsuit, said two weeks ago that they felt re-victimized by that remark.
Herbst tried Wednesday to clarify her previous statements.
“While I was responding only to the broad allegation of institutional indifference, unfortunately, my comments were misunderstood, giving the impression that I was commenting directly on the individual students, or their cases, or the specific claims that had been made,” Herbst said Wednesday.
“I was not. I did not, and would not ever publicly discuss the cases of the students who have come forward — or any individual student’s case, for that matter — or characterize them or their specific claims in any way.”
Asked about Herbst’s comments outside the hearing room Wednesday, Allred said, “I think her original statements speak for themselves.”
She said Herbst’s original remarks appeared to “question the motivation of our clients in coming forward.”
“I think that the students are very smart. They understand what was being said,” Allred said. “There’s backtracking, attempts to explain it away, to distance herself from the original remarks or say that’s not what she really meant. We think she said what she meant and she meant what she said.”