State lawmakers Wednesday heard hours of testimony from University of Connecticut officials and four of the seven students who are accusing the school of failing to adequately respond to reports of their sexual assault.
“This has been a very unsettling day,” said Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven. “I cannot believe in 2013 I am hearing stories like this. This is not the 1970s.”
Much of the hearing focused on explanations from UConn officials on their policies and what federal and state laws require, as legislators asked whether there are gaps in the school’s response to sexual violence.
“Is there something we failed to do as a legislature?” asked Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, House chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, which hosted the informational hearing at the state Capitol complex.
It was a question legislator after legislator asked in some form of the various speakers.
“As lawmakers we want to pass laws … We want people to feel safe,” Dillon said.
Legislators are expected to take this up when the General Assembly convenes in February. Lawmakers unanimously passed a law in 2012 requiring both public and private institutions in the state to provide victims with information on their options and disciplinary procedures. It also requires that all students receive training on being aware of and preventing sexual violence, but only if schools can afford to offer this.
But even with these changes, officials at the Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, a statewide free resource for colleges and anyone seeking help, say much more work remains.
“The problem with the laws are that no one is overseeing what is happening,” Beth Hamilton, director of prevention and programs at CSACS, said during an interview.
She pointed out that there are independent review boards looking at how local officials handle incidents in other important areas, such as child fatalities and domestic violence, but not for how campus officials handle sexual assaults.
Kylie Angell, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said it took filing a complaint and lawsuit to get public attention and oversight on whether UConn is responding appropriately.
“The process was never corrected for me,” Angell said, telling legislators that she had to see her assailant on campus routinely for two years, even after the university’s academic discipline panel determined he was guilty of sexually assaulting her. “When you go to the police, you would never expect that you have to report the police to the police.”
Hamilton said that when campus officials do fall short, it isn’t for a lack of effort.
“Campuses are trying really, really hard to get it right,” she said.
Willis, the higher education committee chair, said while much of the focus has been on UConn’s response to sexual assault, it’s a statewide problem.
“It’s not just about UConn. We want to make sure people realize that,” Willis said.
UConn’s Elizabeth Conklin, who, as the university’s Title IX coordinator, organizes help for victims of sexual assault, told legislators that despite her belief that students are well served when they seek help, more work remains.
“We have a tremendous opportunity as a state,” she told legislators. “We can really move this conversation ahead.”
But Sen. Joan Hartley, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee, said changing the law works only if the reforms are actually implemented. “There is no policy and procedure better than action,” Hartley, D-Waterbury, said during the hearing.
Gloria Allred, the attorney for the students who have filed the complaint and lawsuit against the university, said it’s clear UConn isn’t following their policies.
“We are dealing with reality, not just how they are on paper,” she told reporters.