CT college officials question proposed sexual assault law

“Colleges face significant hurdles with respect to implementation of this proposal,” Katie Kelley, the dean of student services at Ashnuntuck Community College. Next to her is the college system's assistant counsel, who also has reservations with the bill.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

“Colleges face significant hurdles with respect to implementation of this proposal,” said Katie Kelley, dean of student services at Asnuntuck Community College. Next to her is the college system's assistant counsel, who also has reservations with the bill.

A proposed law that would overhaul how colleges and universities must respond to sexual assault has universal support among Connecticut’s women legislators, but several college leaders are pushing back.

“Colleges face significant hurdles with respect to implementation of this proposal,” Katie Kelley, dean of student services at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, told members of the Higher Education Committee Tuesday.

Judith Greiman, who represents nearly all the private colleges in the state as president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, said her members also have several issues with the proposed bill since the federal government is already working toward new requirements surrounding this topic.

“We are concerned that a separate overlapping and potentially conflicting set of rules would create confusion and add layers of bureaucracy but would not improve campus culture,” she testified.

The legislation discussed during a public hearing at the state Capitol complex would require all schools to provide formal documentation to victims that their complaint had been reported and concise documentation, written in “plain language,” of 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 would also start 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, but recent changes to federal law require some off-campus incidents to also be accepted.

Two of the students from the University of Connecticut who last fall filed a federal lawsuit and a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education allege that the university failed to respond appropriately when they reported their off-campus sexual assaults.

Greiman said the bill casts too wide of a net regarding which complaints the colleges would have to accept, investigate and offer services for.

“This needs to be narrowed, or campuses could be required to report incidents that occurred off-campus, in another state, with no relation to the campus at all,” she testified. She ask legislators to adopt the federal language that would include off-campus locations that are public property adjacent to campus and at off-campus student organizations.

The bill 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 would not be able to seek criminal or academic sanctions against their assailant.

“I would like to raise a concern regarding confidentiality,” R. Thomas Clark, assistant counsel for Connecticut State Colleges & Universities, the state’s largest public college system, wrote in submitted testimony

Clark said informing victims that they can remain anonymous, but will not be able to proceed with disciplinary action against their perpetrator “conflicts with federal guidance.” That guidance tells schools that when students elect to remain anonymous, the schools must notify them that they may be limited in the type of actions they can take against the perpetrator.

The bill would also require every college to create a trained sexual assault team to help victims navigate the process of getting help and to enter into an agreement with local specialists to provide counseling and other services for free to students. The Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, which represents several providers that help 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 positive note in this is that we are here today to affect change," said House Chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee Roberta Willis

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

"The positive note in this is that we are here today to affect change," said House Chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee Roberta Willis

“We want to make sure [victims] have access to an advocate,” said Laura Cordes, executive director of Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, a coalition of nine community providers throughout the state.

But some college officials, while supportive of the intent of the bill, testified that such requirements would be expensive.

“The costs associated with training are not insignificant,” Thomas C. Pellegrino, vice president for student affairs at Fairfield University, testified. “I would respectfully request that this body consider providing funding or avenues for accessing funding to assist colleges and universities in meeting the cost of training.”

Kelley, with the community college in Enfield, agreed. She pointed out that much of the mental health and security staff that would be required to implement these initiatives are not present at the non-residential community college campuses.

Regardless of the concerns raised, many people testified in support of the initiatives during the six-hour public hearing. The legislation is also co-sponsored by every women legislator, who comprise 30 percent of the General Assembly.

The proposed legislation follows the complaints and lawsuit filed by several UConn students in the fall that that university officials showed “deliberate indifference” when they sought help following their sexual assaults or harassment.

Tuesday, UConn officials testified for the proposed changes and highlighted some of the steps they have taken in recent months to improve their response for victims, including creating a central hub for students to report incidents and hiring two more counselors.

But one parent of a UConn student who was recently date raped said the added attention on the issue following the other students’ complaint with the U.S. Department of Education didn’t help her daughter.

“Regrettably, the experience shows me the status quo exists,” Jennifer Coyne told lawmakers. She alleges that it took repeated calls to the university to get her daughter counseling services, police were insensitive when handling the case and her daughter had to be questioned by her attacker during the academic disciplinary proceedings.

UConn officials denied the allegations.

“We deny the vast majority of what was asserted during the testimony,” UConn’s Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Gilbert said in an emailed statement. “Our priority is always to provide support to the student and in doing so, we are guided by their needs and the particular approach or outcome they seek.”

A spokeswoman added that since this case happened off campus, UConn Police did not handle this case.

Rep. Roberta Willis, House chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said while the legislation remains a work-in-progress, it is clear there changes are needed and it is her top priority during this legislative session to change state law.

“The positive note in this is that we are here today to affect change,” she said.

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