After UConn sexual assault complaint, CT women lawmakers call for change

Women legislators announce the changes they want in law to improve college responses to sexual assaults.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

Women legislators announce the changes they want in law to improve college responses to sexual assaults.

The ripples continue from complaints against the state’s flagship university for how it handled reports from students of sexual assault.

The 54 women in the state’s General Assembly Thursday released a list of changes to state law they are seeking in the legislative session that begins next week. The changes would affect how every Connecticut college responds to such allegations.

The news comes a day after The University of Connecticut disclosed that it is likely to be fined by the federal government for not properly reporting such complaints from its students.

Rep. Roberta Willis, House chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, said that fine, which is based on a 2011 audit by the U.S. Department of Education, highlights the need for changes in state laws.

“It just really points to the fact that they’re not reporting,” the Salisbury Democrat said. She said she hopes the legislative proposal will correct that.

The women legislators — who comprise 30 percent of the General Assembly — are calling for all private and public colleges in the state to provide formal documentation to victims that their complaint has been reported, and that documentation also explains their rights to get help. Students currently must be notified, but lawmakers said they’ve heard from too many victims that the documentation was filled with legal jargon, or that the students were directed to a website for details.

The proposal also would begin requiring college officials to begin accepting complaints about off-campus assaults from students. Current state law requires schools to accept complaints only if an assault happened on campus.

Two of the UConn students who last fall filed a federal lawsuit and a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education allege that the university failed to appropriately respond to their off-campus assaults.

Sen. Beth Bye, the outgoing Senate chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said she’s heard that complaint from students too often.

“It was an apartment right across the campus,” the West Hartford Democrat recalled of one story.

The proposal would also provide every student with the right to remain anonymous when reporting an incident to school employees, a change aimed at ensuring that victims get access to services, keeping police informed of a potential perpetrator on campus and ensuring accurate reporting of assaults. Those who decide to remain anonymous will not be able to seek criminal or academic sanctions against their assailant, lawmakers said.

The bill would also require every college to create a sexual assault team to help victims navigate the process of getting help. The Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, which represents several providers that help these victims, reported in its 2012 Campus Report Card that 20 of the 25 private and public colleges surveyed had such a system in place.

The White House reported last week that nationwide 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college.

“No one is more at risk of being raped or sexually assaulted than women at our nation’s colleges and universities,” reads the White House Council on Women and Girls report.

President Obama created a task force last week to respond to assaults on college campuses and gave the group 90 days to produce recommendations for how schools should prevent and respond to allegations.

But with students at schools across Connecticut complaining about the reactions they’ve received from their colleges after coming forward, state lawmakers, advocates and officials don’t want to wait for federal action.

“Statistics will tell us that it is someone that we know who will be raped or sexually assaulted… We don’t have to look far,” said Teresa C. Younger, the executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, a state advisory office that helps with policy development of issues relevant to women.

Several of the women legislators Thursday called this package their top priority for the legislative session that begins Wednesday. State lawmakers in 2012 passed legislation aimed at setting up various responses on campuses, but no reporting requirement was included. This new proposal would require annual reporting to legislators on schools’ compliance with the law.

“In Connecticut, we are going to have the strongest response for victims of sexual assault on college campuses as anywhere in the nation,” said Bye.

College officials said Thursday they are reserving judgment on the proposal until a formal bill has been filed.

However, Judith Greiman, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, which represents nearly all the private colleges in the state, said many of the recommendations are already being used on many campuses.

“A lot of it we already do. Some is brand new, and we will have to figure out how to implement,” she said during an interview. “I think all this can be worked out.”

In a statement, UConn’s Elizabeth Conklin, the coordinator of the office responsible for handling reports of sexual violence, said improving campus safety is a priority.

“Sexual assault needs to be confronted directly as we collectively work to prevent this crime from taking place and to provide victims with the resources they need,” she said. “In fact, some of the measures proposed in the bill track very well with established practices at UConn, and others we continue to develop, including extensive training related to sexual assault and harassment and aiding victims.”

In 2012, UConn paid for an outside review of its compliance with federal laws surrounding sexual assault and campus safety. The findings of that review by D. Staffords & Associates found problems in how data is collected and reported.

Among the problems cited in the report were: the absence of operating procedures for notifying students and staff about emergencies; the lack of drills of emergency response procedures; and the failure to gather crime statistics from campus security authorities, which the report called “a significant issue of non-compliance” with the law.

UConn’s Police Chief Barbara O’Connor told the system’s governing board Wednesday that she has since worked to resolve those problems.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years really training the officers on counting and classifying crimes,” she told reporters after the meeting. “Safety is very important for our students, and our students are very safe here… There is no intent to hide crimes here at UConn. There’s no intent to not have solid security policies here at UConn.”

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