By Jenny Wilson
Some UConn students Tuesday were supportive and others skeptical of a federal discrimination complaint that accuses the school of inadequately investigating and responding to reported rapes and other sexual assaults on campus.
The complaint against the university, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under Title IX by seven current or former students, includes allegations that perpetrators’ sanctions were lifted and that university police shrugged off complaints and questioned the credibility of victims of sexual assault.
Four of the plaintiffs detailed their experiences at a press conference Monday night, and most students approached on campus Tuesday said they only learned of the issue after reports circulated on social media. But for two UConn juniors who were friends with some of the accusers, Monday’s news marked a milestone in a campaign to address sexual assault on campus.
“This is a huge step. If this doesn’t change things, I don’t know what will,” said Audrey Goulart speaking in the halls of the student center immediately before she and Holly Havens attended a Violence Against Women Prevention Program meeting. The women said they had worked with the plaintiffs over the summer.
“We’re so proud of them,” Goulart said.
Havens agreed, and said that although campus rape was a problem nationwide, “other schools take better steps to protect the victims.”
“It’s the police force that really needs to change,” said Havens, echoing criticisms from one of the plaintiffs, junior Rose Richi.
Richi said during Monday’s press conference that she was assaulted by a male athlete, and that when she reported the assault to the UConn police a week later, the detective told her he did not believe her.
“If a girl wants protection, the police should give it to her no matter what,” said UConn junior Lajward Khan, who was shocked at the allegations. She said that among her friends, the response was that the university must take steps to address the problem.
The lead plaintiff in the case, fifth-year student Carolyn Luby, became a familiar figure on campus last spring when she wrote an open letter to UConn President Susan Herbst, in which she criticized the new Husky logo for being too “powerful and aggressive.”
Luby said Monday the letter was an attempt to draw attention to “the way the administration at the university had been deliberately indifferent to issues of sexual violence.”
Travis Mustian, a graduate student, said that Luby “just likes causing trouble.”
“Seeing her past, I might not take her so seriously if I were the dean, because if she’s complaining about all those things, it’s kind of like the boy who cried wolf,” said Austin Konon, a junior from Colchester. But in a reference to the federal discrimination complaint, he said: “If more people are complaining, then maybe it is an issue.”
Konon said that although the university is diligent about sending campus-wide emails to notify students of reported sexual assaults, he “hadn’t heard of people getting kicked out or anything like that.”
One of the plaintiffs, 2013 graduate Kylie Angell, said she was raped by a classmate in a UConn dormitory. After she reported the rape and a disciplinary hearing was held, she was told the perpetrator had been expelled and banned from campus. Angell said she later learned his sanctions had been lifted, and that a top administrator thought the initial punishment was “too severe.”
A number of students Tuesday either had not heard of the issue or were surprised to learn that the university was being criticized for its handling of violence against women.
“They’re doing the best they can,” said Adam Guerrette, a junior from Somers, who transferred to UConn. He said his previous school was good on the issue, “but I think UConn does a better job. They talk about it and actually bring it up, make it an issue.”
Mustian said “it’s a pretty strong feminist campus” and the administration might not have the same philosophy.
University staff, including students who worked at the UConn Women’s Center, said they were prohibited from discussing the allegations.
University spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said in a statement released Monday that the university “takes allegations of this nature extremely seriously, as the health and well-being of our students is our top priority. … We are confident at this point that these cases were handled thoroughly, swiftly, and appropriately.”
Referring to federal privacy laws, Reitz said that if students wanted to waive their privacy protection rights, the university would be willing to provide details of its response.
She also said the university would welcome any additional information on the cases.
“Our students should reasonably expect protection and due process,” Reitz said. “They deserve the best response in the nation, and we’re committed to ensuring that right.”
Reitz declined further comment Tuesday.
The allegations may be addressed Wednesday morning when Herbst gives her regularly scheduled remarks before the board of trustees.
Meanwhile, the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women was quick to call attention to the problem of sexual assault on campus. “If there is a protocol in place for students to report an incident, but victims are not being heard by the police or the administration, this is a grave violation of existing law,” Executive Director Teresa Younger said in a statement released Tuesday.
One graduate student who declined to give his name acknowledged that the university could be inadequately investigating reports of rape because it fears possibly damaging its reputation.
“I feel like the school should be held more accountable for it, they shouldn’t just brush it under the rug,” he said.
Gloria Allred, a well-known women’s rights attorney, is representing the women and said in an interview Tuesday that she is unclear of the school’s motives, but that colleges often use the internal investigative process once a complaint is filed to “keep a lid on” the allegations.
“There are economic motives for a university to fail to comply with the law,” said Allred, who is based in Los Angeles. “They don’t want parents afraid to send their daughters or sons to the university. It affects the number of applicants they get — and applications are a source of funding.”
Havens said she hoped that her friends’ action results in concrete change. She said she hoped that students, the public and the university would focus on the gravity of the allegations and not get caught up in the inevitable backlash.
“All anyone ever seems to care about is the backlash — how it’s going to affect UConn’s reputation,” she said.