Storrs — Just seven students have made a formal complaint against how the University of Connecticut responds to reports of sexual violence, but the number of speakers with their own stories to tell Wednesday appeared to indicate the problem is more widespread.
“It happens more than you think,” Alex Katz, a senior at UConn and a victim of sexual assault, told a crowd of more than 100 students attending a “solidarity” rally near the student union. She decided not to pursue charges against her attacker after it became clear he had powerful connections on campus, and he threatened to have her kicked out of school.
Similar stories followed during the 90-minute event. More than two dozen students spoke, a handful telling of their experiences with sexual assault.
One student said her sister was urged by the UConn Police Department last year not to seek charges against her attacker because there was no way she would be able to afford a trial.
Another student told the audience of calling UConn Police multiple times to report her attack. They never responded so she went elsewhere to get help.
“I just need people to listen,” the tearful junior told the audience. The student asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The rally was in the wake of a Title IX complaint filed last week by seven current and former UConn students with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The complaint cited UConn’s “deliberate indifference” when students report assaults. The seven students are being represented by Gloria Allred, a well-known civil rights attorney.
Three of the students involved in the complaint sat on the stoop during the rally in silence. Strapped across their mouths on red duct tape were the words “MANY VOICES.”
Erica Daniels, one of the complaintants, wore an altered UConn T-shirt during the rally that read: “You turned your back on us.” She has said the university refused to appropriately investigate her allegations after she was raped.
In the past five years, 55 sexual assault complaints have been made to the UConn Police Department. The university was unable to provide any details on the outcome of those complaints either last week or this week.
Of student complaints made during the past two fiscal years to the university panel responsible for disciplining students academically, one in 10 that involved sexual misconduct or domestic violence resulted in a disciplinary action, university officials report.
Of the 43 sexual assaults and 36 sexual advances or comments made between July 2011 and July 2013, no more than 12 people were suspended or expelled for a sexual misconduct or domestic violence accusation, the officials report.
UConn said to deny problems
Many universities and colleges have experienced problems and controversies related to on-campus violence against women.
When students at the University of North Carolina filed a Title IX complaint earlier this year, the chancellor wrote students, “We have a problem on our campus and we need to talk about it.”
At Emerson College in Boston, the school’s president wrote students to say, “We can and we will do better.”
At Yale, the student newspaper reported that the president wrote students, “It is imperative that the climate at Yale be free of sexual harassment and misconduct of any kind. The well being of our students and the entire community requires this. Should transgressions occur, they must be addressed expeditiously and appropriately.”
When UConn was hit with the Title IX complaint last week, UConn President Susan Herbst told her Board of Trustees, “The suggestion that the University of Connecticut, as an institution, would somehow be indifferent to or dismissive of any report of sexual assault is astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue.”
“I am stunned that I even have to say it, or that any reasonable person would believe otherwise… It was very difficult this week to hear our UConn police officers painted as uncaring, insensitive and rude. They will continue to [do their jobs] with a high level of professionalism, no matter the name-calling,” Herbst said.
The president’s response shocked many UConn students and state lawmakers.
“I was disappointed in Susan Herbst’s use of the word reasonable,” said Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, who heads the legislature’s task force on domestic violence.
Daniels had a similar reaction. “It was disappointing and hurtful,” she said after the rally.
Herbst, a former professor of public policy at Georgia Tech where her research focused on public opinion, also offered praise to the “dedicated and talented” staff who prevent sexual violence in an email to students last Friday.
Outraged by the administration’s general response, Jessica Buonocoie held up a sign during the rally that read, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
Asked about the sign, the senior, a history and women’s studies student, said, “Because of everything that’s going on but especially their lack of response.”
Herbst has nudged the students who made the complaint to allow the university to release their records to the public in an effort to promote transparency.
“Anyone is free to make any allegation they choose to, and we are extremely limited in what we can say in response,” Herbst said, citing federal privacy laws in explaining why the university will not be responding to specific cases.
The three students involved in the complaint cheered with those at the rally when a speaker criticized the university for making such a statement, and said that the victims should not have to give up their privacy rights in order to be believed.
Several top university officials attended the rally, but declined to comment.
“We are here to listen,” said Elizabeth Conklin, the university’s Title IX coordinator, whose office handles students’ complaints related to surrounding sexual assault.
Stephanie Reitz, a UConn spokeswoman, said in a statement, “UConn fully supports and admires our students’ commitment to talk openly about these very important topics. We care deeply about our students, we are listening, and we’re committed to a campus community that is free from all forms of violence, harassment, exploitation, and intimidation.”
Legislators plan to hold a public hearing in November to address the sexual assault issues at UConn.
View a photo gallery of the rally by clicking here.