Republican legislative leaders are calling for a public hearing on the University of Connecticut’s policies regarding sexual violence.
State Sen. John McKinney and state Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero sent a letter Thursday to the chairs and ranking members of the General Assembly’s public safety and higher education committee asking for the joint hearing. The request comes just days after several current and former UConn students filed a federal discrimination lawsuit alleging the university failed to protect them from sexual assault – and did not adequately investigate and respond to numerous reported sexual assaults that occurred on campus.
“As a father of two daughters, I find these allegations especially troubling,” McKinney, R-Fairfield, said in a press release. “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.”
In a brief phone interview, McKinney said he was troubled by the reaction of UConn President Susan Herbst. “I personally like President Herbst and I believe in the job she’s doing but…I found her response very defensive and surprisingly dismissive,” McKinney said.
“This is not the time to be protective of the UConn brand. This is a time to make sure every woman on that campus is treated respectfully and fairly…Can this be very damaging to the university’s reputation? The answer’s yes but what worse is the damage to these woman,” McKinney said.
Cafero, who leads the Republican caucus in the House, said a thorough public review of the university’s polices is needed.
“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,” Cafero, R-Norwalk, said in a press release. “We need a complete airing before the public on these matters.”
University Spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said UConn would welcome a public hearing.
“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,” Reitz said in an emailed statement.
State Sen. Toni Boucher, a ranking member of the higher education committee, backs the call for a public hearing. “I am deeply troubled by these allegations and that anyone would have to undergo such a terrible experience. My heart goes out to the students that may be affected and hope these young women are getting the help they need,” she said.
Boucher said: “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. Resources must be directed toward a thorough investigation, and I support Sen. McKinney and Rep. Cafero’s call for a public hearing to get these questions answered and to determine how our laws can be strengthened. We have an opportunity to make our policies a model for the rest of the nation.”
Read the complete text of Cafero and McKinney’s letter after the jump.
Dear chairmen and ranking members of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee and Public Safety and Security Committee:
We are writing in response to the recent federal discrimination suit filed against the University of Connecticut by several current and former female students. The students allege that the university failed to protect them from sexual assault and failed to adequately investigate and respond to numerous reported sexual assaults that occurred on campus.
The facts presented by the women with regard to the university’s response to sexual assault and rape complaints raise troubling questions regarding our flagship public university and its commitment to protect and support female students. One student reports being told by a UConn police officer that “women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter or rape is going to keep on happening ‘til the cows come home.” Another woman states that when she reported being raped, the UConn police detective responded that “he did not believe me.”
If true, these responses by UConn officials to women reporting sexual assault are highly disturbing and unacceptable. All complaints of sexual assault need to be treated seriously and investigated and victims deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. As a public institution, UConn must be held to the highest standard of legal and ethical conduct. The complainants allege that UConn has violated federal anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, if these allegations are true, it would appear that the university has failed to abide by state laws requiring institutions of higher education to implement policies for the reporting and investigation of sexual assaults.
In 2012, the general assembly adopted legislation requiring public and private colleges and universities to adopt and implement protocols for responding to sexual assault complaints. Victims have 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.
We are requesting that your committees hold a joint public hearing at which UConn officials can provide information regarding policies and procedures for responding to sexual assault complaints and answer questions. It is our obligation as a legislature to ensure that state law is being followed and also to determine whether further improvements in the law are required to adequately protect victims of sexual assault.
For example, it is unclear from the reports how, if at all, UConn’s student discipline process is coordinated with its law enforcement process. 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. 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 addition, students may feel that UConn police are protective of the university. Perhaps sexual assault complaints should be referred to state police for independent investigation.
These are serious issues and questions that must be addressed. Therefore, we are requesting that you convene a joint public hearing of the Higher Education and Public Safety committees as soon as possible. The public must be assured that UConn is not only abiding by state and federal laws, but is doing all that it can to prevent sexual assaults on campus, support victims of sexual violence, and punish perpetrators. If there is a need to strengthen state law to protect victims and ensure proper discipline of perpetrators, we must identify those areas and develop proposals in advance of what will be a short legislative session.
Thank you for your time and attention.
Lawrence Cafero, Jr.