STORRS Conn.—University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst on Wednesday gave an impassioned defense of the school’s response to alleged sexual assaults on campus, two days after a federal civil rights complaint was filed by seven women who say they were assaulted while attending the school.
The women allege school officials responded to their complaints with deliberate indifference or worse.
Herbst told the university’s Board of Trustees that she could not discuss the individual cases because of federal privacy laws, but said the school takes the issue very seriously and provides numerous resources to ensure that victims of sexual harassment and assault receive compassion, care and justice.
“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,” she said.
Herbst outlined steps UConn has taken to become what she says is a national leader in the field of dealing with sexual harassment and assault. Those include mandatory student and employee training on how to prevent and report sexual assault; the formation of a task force on civility which is looking into issues such as how student alcohol and drug use contribute to the problem; and the establishment of a website that provides information on sexual assault and prevention and response.
She acknowledged the school failed to inform one woman when her alleged attacker was allowed to return to campus after an appeal of his expulsion, but said that occurred three years ago and the process has since been corrected.
Board chairman Larry McHugh said Herbst has the trustees’ full support.
Herbst, UConn Police Chief Barbara O’Connor, and the school’s Title IX coordinator Elizabeth Conklin, also met with the media to outline the school’s policies.
Conklin said UConn’s Community Standards Office thoroughly investigates every report of sexual misconduct, whether it results in a criminal prosecution or not. She said the goal is to be fair to both the victims and those who are accused.
O’Connor said there are no current criminal or internal affairs investigations underway related to the civil rights complaint, which includes an allegation that a female police officer told one of the victims, “Women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter or rape is going to keep happening until the cows come home.'”
She said that officer has no memory of making that statement.
“It’s very difficult to go back and investigate an allegation that is over three years old, at least in one case,” O’Connor said. “I would tell students, as the chief of police, if that were occurring, I’d want to know about it right away. We would institute an internal affairs investigation and we’d want to address it.”
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said their Office for Civil Rights in Boston is evaluating the complaint to determine if the allegations warrant investigating. Conklin said the school has yet to receive a copy of the complaint.
The complaint, if upheld, could lead to sanctions including the loss of federal money.
Conklin said there were 13 reported sexual assaults on campus last year. She said the number has increased in recent years, but said the school believes the rise comes as a result of their efforts to educate students on how to report abuse.
Suma Hussain, a fifth-year student from Newington who was among a small number of students to attend the Board of Trustees meeting, said she believes there is a culture at UConn that tolerates rape. She said she would like to have heard a greater commitment to doing more, rather than a defense of what is already is in place.
“How is it that these things happen and at the same time we’re hearing about cuts to the women’s center and the cultural center and we’re building a basketball center?” she said. “That’s what I think is kind of sad.”