Storrs -- About 6 feet wide, winding through the woods behind the University of Connecticut's campus, the half-mile paved path starts at the back of a commuter parking lot and leads to off-campus apartments. Lined with trees and bushes with orange and red leaves this time of year, it’s an often-used shortcut between campus and student housing complexes.
University officials call it the "Celeron Trail," after one group of apartments, but it has a much better known name on campus, where it's called the "Rape Trail."
The label is stark, but UConn officials and the Mansfield police, which responds to off-campus complaints, say just one sexual assault has been reported to them in the last 10 years as occurring on the path, which has had lights, emergency phones and security cameras added in recent years.
Details of that one reported incident on the path, which happened more than five years ago, were widely known, however, because the victim happened to be the editor of the campus newspaper and she wrote about what happened to her.
“Another man, around 6’1,’’ approached me and said, 'You think that was an assault?' and pulled down my tube top, and grabbed my breasts. More men started to cheer. It didn’t matter to the drunken mob that my breasts were being shown or fondled against my will,” Melissa Bruen, a UConn senior, wrote in the spring of 2008 in the Daily Campus.
Today, pointing to the data and the security enhancements, officials say the trail doesn't deserve its nickname or its reputation.
“I think it’s an unfair and unjust stereotype,” Sgt. Richard Cournoyer, of the Mansfield Resident State Troopers Office, said. “It’s just not a scary place. I have college-age daughters, and I wouldn’t worry about them walking there.”
In the past two weeks, accusations about what some say is a "rape culture" on campus heated up again when a group of students filed a federal lawsuit in Hartford and a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights for what they say is the university's blasé attitude in responding to the sexual assault of its students.
But the characterization of UConn as a place with a rape culture did not grow from a single incident. At a campus rally last week, students chronicled at least a dozen incidents they said proves their point as they called on university officials to change how they respond to sexual assaults.
Reliability in reporting?
The university’s community standards office, which is responsible for investigating complaints of sexual assault and disciplining students academically, says there has not been a single incident on the "rape trail" reported to them in at least the last eight years. Mansfield police, which are responsible for the off-campus apartments the path leads to, also reports no recent incidents.
While UConn officials credit the added security, and the bus stop and sidewalks installed around campus so students would have an alternative way to get to off-campus housing, others have questioned the reliability of the university’s crime statistics.
Three students at last week's rally shared their stories about being turned away by university officials or not getting their calls returned when they attempted to report their attacks.
A lawsuit filed last week citing the university’s poor handling of sexual assaults also highlights more student accounts of the university's never officially reporting their incidents.
“No one from either office ever followed-up or wrote a report regarding this disclosure, either to ensure [the victim’s] well being or to ensure the accuracy of the University’s crime statistics,” reads the lawsuit.
Federal law requires colleges and universities to report the prevalence of sexual assaults on their campus each year, but because the numbers are self-reported and not independently verified, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education reports, “the Department cannot vouch for the accuracy of the data reported.”
State lawmakers are well aware of the situation.
“All universities are not accurately reporting this,” said Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, the who heads the legislature’s task force on domestic violence.
In the past five years, the UConn Police Department reported that it has received 55 sexual assault complaints campus-wide. Aside from the one assault reported on the so-called "rape trail," UConn police reported that in 2011 and 2012, they responded to the trail for six alcohol violations, three narcotics violations, one disorderly conduct, and one intoxicated person.
In Mansfield, the 25-square-mile town that includes the area surrounding UConn and off-campus housing, there were three reports of rape or attempted rape in 2012. In the previous four years, seven rapes were reported; in none of these was the victim was younger than 25, the traditional college-age population.
UConn's 'rape culture'
Regardless if there is any truth to the nickname of the trail, which was built in the 1990s to connect the Celeron Square Apartments to campus, several students say the name itself is indicative of the “rape culture” on campus.
“This culture is being bred here,” Brittnie Carrier, a UConn senior, said during last week's rally, reading off a long list of recent incidents at the university. These include students cheering at a campus homecoming concert after the musician rapped about the trail, how a student athlete involved in a reported assault was still able to play in his game, and how the university handled the case of a UConn professor facing allegations of sexually abusing children.
Nancy Naples, the director of UConn’s Women Studies Program, said there is no doubt that the university has a lot of work to do to counter these concerns.
“We are trying to use this moment as a teaching moment… What can we do to take control over the discourse,” she said. She then turned to the name of the trail.
“Rename it, remark it -- whatever. It’s somewhat feeding the culture by not acting. Words are powerful. It’s a powerful image whether it’s real or not.”
A spokeswoman for UConn agreed that the nickname is unfortunate.
“I agree with students that the nickname does nothing but add to anxiety and fear among students,” spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said. “We call it the Celeron Trail.”