By Jacqueline Rabe
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy joined Republican legislative leaders Thursday in calling for hearings on allegations that the University of Connecticut has failed to pursue complaints of sexual assaults.
“One of the most basic responsibilities of our institutions of higher learning is to keep our young people safe,” said Malloy, whose wife once ran a rape crisis center. “If they have failed in that responsibility in any way, or if any victim of sexual assault has been treated with anything but the utmost respect, I will be outraged.”
The leaders of the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate quickly issued similar statements.
The governor issued his statement three hours after the GOP minority leaders, Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero of Norwalk and Sen. John P. McKinney of Fairfield, released their letter to the Democratic leaders of the Higher Education and Public Safety and Security committees. They wrote that a complaint filed this week by seven students with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil rights is troubling and questions need to be answered soon.
The Republican leaders said they worry that when students reach out for help they are being directed to a university panel that handles academic discipline, which could hinder their ability to seek criminal charges later. They want assurances during a public hearing that the criminal and academic proceedings work in collaboration.
“The unfortunate sense one gets from reading these accounts is that students may be encouraged to pursue the internal discipline process and only when that fails do they consider going to campus police, at which point, they may be told that evidence has been lost and it is ‘too late’ to investigate,” Cafero and McKinney wrote. “If this is true, then perhaps when sexual assault complaints are first brought to UConn’s student disciplinary board they should be automatically forwarded to UConn police for investigation.”
In the last five years, 55 sexual-assault complaints were made to the school’s police department. Meanwhile, the university panel responsible for academic discipline has received complaints of 43 sexual assaults and 36 sexual advances or comments in the last two years.
House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, also endorsed the idea of hearings in a statement that followed the governor’s. But he also showed resentment that Cafero and McKinney were quick to go public with the suggestin.
“There is no reason why this effort needed to be partisan -– I’m happy to work with my Republican colleagues,” Sharkey said. “Sexual assault on campus is too important an issue for political grandstanding.”
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn, whose district includes the UConn campus at Storrs, and Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney of New Haven, also issued a joint statement demanding that UConn clarify its policies on handling sexual-assault complaints.
“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,” the Senate Democratic leaders said. “Parents and students need to be reassured that college provides a safe and supportive environment. Anything less is intolerable.”
State law requires all universities to adopt and implement protocols for responding to sexual-assault complaints. The law also provides the victims the right to participate in disciplinary proceedings and be informed of the results. They also must be informed of their right to notify law enforcement and seek a protective order and be offered assistance from the university in doing so.
“The accounts given by the complainants suggest that these protocols were not followed,” the Republicans wrote. “Students may feel that UConn police are protective of the university. Perhaps sexual assault complaints should be referred to state police for independent investigation.”
McKinney is seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2014, when Malloy, a Democrat, is up for re-election.
“I absolutely support the idea of holding public hearings on UConn’s sexual assault prevention and response procedures. 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,” Malloy said.
Malloy’s tone was markedly different than that taken by UConn President Susan Herbst, who strongly challenged the substance of the complaints during her 10 minutes of prepared remarks at a Board of Trustees’ meeting Wednesday.
“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,” Herbst said.
Malloy said Thursday that Herbst pledges to investigate the claims.
“I have spoken with President Herbst, and she has assured me that the University is taking these allegations very seriously. I expect the University to act quickly in cooperating with the U.S. Department of Education as they investigate the complaint,” Malloy said.
Rep. Roberta Willis of Salisbury and Sen. Beth Bye of West Hartford, the Democratic co-chairwomen of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, said during interviews prior to the statements issued by their leaders that no decision has been made yet whether to hold a public hearing. They said that they need to figure out what the goal of the hearing would be and how much can be accomplished without violating the students’ privacy laws.
Regardless, they both said they have questions.
“Obviously, we need some more information and answers,” Willis said. “I feel confident that the policy is in place. What we are really talking about is how the situation was handled. Did they follow the appropriate protocols in place?”
“We want to understand if the policies were followed,” Bye said.
The legislature’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women also questioned this week whether the law unanimously approved by legislators in 2012 is being observed by UConn officials.
“Since there is a law on the books addressing this very issue -– mandating that state colleges and universities develop and then follow a protocol addressing sexual assault, including reporting, counseling, disciplinary action, etc., the real question is: Is UConn following its own policy and does that policy adequate serve the campus community? 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,” said Teresa C. Younger, the commission’s executive director.
Barbara O’Connor, UConn’s police chief, testified before legislators last year on the bill. She outlined what the university’s response is when complaints are made.
“The University of Connecticut has adopted an institution-wide comprehensive Sexual Assault Response Policy that demonstrates the University’s longstanding commitment and approach to responding to victims of sexual assault on campus in compliance with its ethical and legal obligations. [The policy] assists University employees in responding appropriately to reports of sexual assault, including providing information to victims about contacting the police and receiving medical treatment and other critical support services. The policy also promotes a safe campus environment by facilitating on-campus disciplinary processes and involving law enforcement officials in conformity with applicable law and regulations,” O’Connor testified.
A UConn spokeswoman Thursday said officials “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.”