UConn students file federal lawsuit over university’s handling of sexual assaults
Four students from the University of Connecticut today filed a federal sex discrimination lawsuit in Hartford against the university for how it handled complaints of their rapes and sexual assaults both on campus and while one student studied abroad.
“UConn had actual knowledge of the harassment,” the 38-page lawsuit reads. “UConn’s response to the harassment sustained by [the students] and/or its lack of response was deliberately indifferent, insofar as the response or lack thereof was clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.”
A university spokeswoman responded in a statement, “The University does all in its power to appropriately investigate and handle such claims in a manner that is fully compliant with the law and grounded in both sensitivity and fairness.”
The lawsuit follows a civil rights complaint filed last week against the university by six current and one former student. The attorney representing the students would not say why three of the students decided not to join the lawsuit.
Details of the assaults are readily available to the public in the lawsuit, while the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is not public.
Gloria Allred, the high-profile attorney representing the UConn students in both the complaint and the lawsuit, said that the students are seeking an injunction to change the university’s current practices in how it handles complaints of rape and sexual assault. As a civil lawsuit, they are also seeking financial relief, though they did not say how much.
“Having a policy on a piece of paper is not enough — we need enforcement,” Allred said.
Allred has teamed up with New Haven attorney Nina T. Pirrotti, and both said at the news conference that they’re eager to question UConn President Susan Herbst while under oath.
The students and Allred told reporters during a press conference outside the federal courthouse in Hartford that they were shocked by Herbst’s response last week to the allegations.
Herbst told her Board of Trustees last week, “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,” she said. “I cannot speak to the motivations of people who have suggested this.”
On Friday, some of the complainants said Herbst’s response was inappropriate and victimized them twice by questioning their motives.
“President Herbst apparently believes that all is well at UConn,” Allred said.
“President Herbst’s response made me feel invalidated all over again,” said Rose Richi, who said she was raped in a UConn dormitory by a university football player. Richi said when she informed the director of the Women’s Center, who is mandated by law to report such offenses she learns about to authorities, no report was ever made. Richi also said that when she decided to go to the UConn Police Department herself, the officer told her he didn’t believe her.
The lawsuit calls the department’s investigation of Richi’s case, “shoddy… nor did they make her feel safe.”
Carolyn Luby, who said she was drugged at a party at UConn and who was threatened with being sent home during a different incident while studying abroad, said the president’s response last week, was “shocking, violent and hurtful.”
In a statement, a university spokeswoman said, “It’s become clear that there’s confusion over some comments that President Herbst made during her report to the Board of Trustees last week… President Herbst did not comment on, or characterize, any of the specific allegations from the four women and did not question their motives. Rather, what she was challenging was the broad charge that UConn as an institution is “deliberately indifferent” to sexual assault and its victims. THAT is what she described as ‘misguided’ and ‘untrue,’ and was not in any way discussing the women’s allegations.” (Read the president’s full remarks here.)
An informational hearing on the “reporting and investigative policies and procedures” regarding sexual assault of the colleges in the state is scheduled to take place Nov. 13 at the state Capitol complex in Hartford. The hearing follows a call last week by state legislators and the governor for an informational hearing on the UConn situation.
The spokeswoman for UConn said that the university “care[s] deeply for the safety and welfare of all of our students. We will carefully assess the allegations contained in the federal lawsuit filed today. The University cannot discuss specific allegations publicly due to federal student privacy protections and the legal constraints of pending litigation, but will respond accordingly as part of the legal process in that venue.”
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