A group of legislators representing every female member of the General Assembly outlined a bill Thursday that they hope will improve how universities in Connecticut respond to sexual assaults on or near their campuses.
The proposals were crafted based on legislative hearings convened last year after seven current and former University of Connecticut students filed a complaint against the school claiming the university violated their rights by showing “deliberate indifference” when they reported being raped or sexually harassed. Four of the students also filed a lawsuit based in part on the university’s response to their complaint.
“This time our focus is going to be on response,” Rep. Roberta Willis, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said at a press conference Thursday. “We need to ensure that our colleges provide a supportive response when an assault occurs.”
Willis and a bipartisan group of lawmakers announced the legislation just before it was raised by her committee. She said it was the Higher Education Committee’s top priority for the legislative session that begins next week. Lawmakers will hear public testimony on the bill on Feb. 11.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said every female lawmaker — Republican and Democrat — has signed on to support the measures.
“We hope this sends an important statement that every single one of us has signed on and that in Connecticut, we are going to have the strongest response for victims of sexual assault on college campuses as anywhere in the nation,” she said.
The bill would impact public and private colleges and universities in the state.
Among the proposals included in the bill is a requirement that universities immediately provide clear written information when victims, either students or employees, report sexual assault. The document will make clear what that victim’s rights and options are.
It would also mandate that institutions have trained Sexual Assault Response Teams and sets membership requirements for those teams. Sen. Toni Boucher, the Higher Education Committee’s ranking Republican, said it is important that higher education institutions have a uniform approach to responding to sexual assaults.
“We saw from the unfortunate incidents this fall that the [response] wasn’t always done in a unified way throughout our college campuses,” she said. “The students need a great deal of support. By putting together an emergency response team for sexual assault on campuses that are more uniformed, this could help them in a great way.”
The bill will give victims a formal mechanism to anonymously report an incident of sexual assault. Currently, victims can anonymously report only informally and they often choose not to report the incidents, Laura Cordes, executive director of Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, said.
“Because of the trauma, threats from the offender, and quite honestly the undue shame, blame, guilt, and scrutiny that comes when you disclose, victims are very careful if when and whom they disclose to,” she said.
While some victims may feel more comfortable reporting anonymously, Cordes said anonymous reports are unlikely to be usable in criminal or administrative actions against the offender.
The proposal also sets new reporting requirements for colleges and universities. They will be required to report annually to the Higher Education Committee for updates on sexual assault incidents that have occurred on or around their campuses, their policies for responding to these incidents. The schools also will be expected to provide information on disciplinary cases involving sexual assaults and intimate partner violence and what the outcomes of those cases were.
The bill also requires that higher education institutions to have a formal understanding with community sexual assault crisis centers to ensure that victims have the option of accessing supportive services off-campus.
In a statement, Elizabeth Conklin, UConn’s Title IX Coordinator, said the university would be reviewing the draft proposals and shared the determination of lawmakers to address sexual violence on the state’s campuses.
“In fact, some of the measures proposed in the bill track very well with established practices at UConn and others we continue to develop, including extensive training related to sexual assault and harassment and aiding victims,” she said.