In sexual assault cases, do UConn athletes get special treatment?

University of Connecticut's Gampel Pavillion

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

University of Connecticut's Gampel Pavillion

When it comes to sexual misconduct, are University of Connecticut athletes treated differently than other students?

Is there a “locker-room mentality” that fosters or at least tolerates a “rape culture” on campus?

With three of the five publicly disclosed cases in the federal complaint against UConn involving student athletes, the House chairman of the state legislature’s Higher Education Committee says it’s an issue that needs to be fully explored.

“Is this a trend? That’s a conversation that we need to have going forward,” said Rep. Roberta Willis.

These three students say officials at UConn failed to make them feel safe from harassment from student athletes, even after they sought their help.

“When I reported an assault, they encouraged me to stay silent about what I had seen,” Alyssa Palazzo, who witnessed UConn tailback Lyle McCombs abusing his girlfriend outside her dorm in October 2012, wrote in an opinion piece in The Huffington Post this week. “When I refused, they didn’t protect my safety as though it was some consequence I had brought upon myself.”

McCombs was charged with breach of peace and soon after the Associated Press reported that he apologized for “my mistake.”

Palazzo recounted her treatment after reporting the incident to UConn officials. She said an official told her not to say anything at all if she wanted to be safe.

She is one of seven current and former students who recently filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.

Kylie Angell and Rosemary Richi -– who have, in addition, filed a federal civil lawsuit against UConn — identify their perpetrators as athletes. Richi says in the lawsuit that she was raped by a UConn football player she does not identify in 2011, and Angell identifies her rapist only as an unnamed “student athlete.”

“I didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone or reporting because of the overwhelming privilege of athletes on this campus,” Richi said last month when announcing the complaint. She said when she did report the incident to the university police, they told her they didn’t believe her and didn’t interview key witnesses.

After a nearly five-hour hearing this week prompted by those complaints, Willis said she can’t help but think there is a “locker-room mentality” where athletes at UConn are concerned.

“There is sort of a recognition that there is a culture… It was a topic below the surface that didn’t percolate” during the hearing, she said.

UConn officals could not say Friday if they have noticed a trend in reported complaints against student athletes. Neither could they provide information on the extent to which UConn athletes are educated about sexual violence, although every incoming UConn student is required to receive such training during orientation.

While many students insist there is a “rape culture” on campus, at least one teacher in the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Department says such a culture is often linked specifically to athletics.

“There is a connection between a jock culture and rape culture,” said Delia Aguilar, an adjunct professor.

One national expert says the way to overcome a perception that athletes or other high-profile people on campus are untouchable is to strictly implement the school’s policies, no matter who is accused.

“It’s important your processes are fair and equitable and no one is treated preferentially,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Clery Center for Security on Campus, a national nonprofit organization.

Kiss added that it is essential that witnesses feel safe to come forward, though the federal law doesn’t guarantee them opportunities to switch classes or housing to avoid contact with the person they are testifying against.

“That’s truly a campus decision,” she said. But if someone is threatened, the law could require they receive accommodations, depending on the details of the complaint. She added that best practice would be for campus policies to make sure it’s clear to everyone that the case should not boil over into the community or lead to retaliation.

UConn does provide witnesses with options, said UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz.

“If a witness comes forward and expresses fear for his or her safety, or the university otherwise believes the student’s safety is at risk, there are a number of steps the University can and does take. They include getting the police involved, accommodating the witness with changes in class schedule and/or living arrangements, as well as instructing there be no contact between the accused and the witness,” said Reitz in a statement.

But Palazzo, who graduated from UConn in 2013, said none of these options were offered to her following the McCombs incident.

“For the remaining seven months at UConn, I felt unsafe. I lived in a building with a boy who knew I was responsible for his arrest. … What was the point in complaining to the administration if they didn’t take me seriously?” she asked.

In another case, Carolyn Luby, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit who says she was sexually harassed both on campus and online after the Feminist Wire picked up her “open letter” to UConn President Susan Herbst criticizing the administration’s treatment of athletes.

After citing several incidents involving UConn athletes — and them being “unaddressed” by officials — Luby wrote this past spring, “It would appear that your administration is more interested in fostering consumerism and corporatization than education and community.”

Gloria Allred, the attorney representing some of the seven students in the federal complaint, said she had no comment on whether the other two students who filed the Title IX complaint were also involved in incidents involving student athletes.

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