‘Not just UConn’: Many colleges struggle with how to respond to sexual assault

It's not just UConn.

“After coming forward, I was blamed left and right. Why did I keep it to myself? Why didn’t I report it right away? Why was I drinking and underage? These were all the questions shot at me rapid fire from a panel of college officials,” Samantha Bayuk told state lawmakers last year in describing the response of officials at her Fairfield County college when she told them of her sexual assault on campus.

And then there's Krystal Rich, a recent graduate of Central Connecticut State University: “I was bounced from department to department … I had to jump through hoops to resolve my case,” she told legislators last year of her assault on campus in 2010.

The list of victims sharing their stories went on and on, and lawmakers on the Higher Education Committee listened. The legislators were considering a bill that would redefine how colleges should respond to sexual violence.

This week several state legislators questioned whether colleges' responses to sexual assaults have improved since that bill became law. This lack of clarity became apparent at the state Capitol complex Wednesday during an hours-long hearing scheduled in response to a group of students from the University of Connecticut who charge that the school showed "deliberate indifference" when students reported they'd been victims of sexual assault.

“It’s not just about UConn,” Rep. Roberta Willis, the House chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, told an official representing the state’s private colleges.

Over the past five years, 7,166 complaints from college students across the country have been filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights about a university’s handling of sexual harassment and violence and other sex discrimination issues. Just five of those complaints are from University of Connecticut students, including the most recent, which has drawn so much attention to UConn's policy and treatment of assault victims.

The Office of Civil Rights this week was unable to provide the number of complaints filed against other institutions of higher education in Connecticut, or the outcome of those complaints. All four previous complaints filed against UConn in the last five years were dismissed, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. The outcome of eight Title IX complaints at other colleges around the country are available here.

But with a national movement working to draw attention to the issue, many colleges have renewed their focus on their policies. On Friday, a panel that governs the ConnSCU system -– comprising a dozen community colleges and four state universities –- is slated to consider some policies relating to sexual conduct and violence.

While officials work toward improving their systems, officials at the Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, a statewide free resource for colleges and anyone seeking help, has created a "Campus Report Card"  that outlines necessary changes. This includes mandatory training for all campus staff, providing multiple reporting options (including an anonymous option), having readily available for students a victim’s Bill of Rights, and having a single person overseeing victims' services on campus.

The organization also released a "Campus Report Card," which identifies how well 25 of the state's public and private colleges -- about two-thirds of the higher education institutions in the state -- comply with a long list of best practices. (See interactive chart here)

“There’s no question a lot of work remains,” said Jillian Gilchrest, director of public policy for CONNSACS, though she added that important progress has been made in recent years. “It’s taken some time to get to here.”

 

UConn's Sexual Assault Response Policy for all staff.

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