With the start of each legislative session, lawmakers typically look to pass new laws in response to troubling events from the prior year.
The session now underway is no exception. One of the biggest legal stories of 2013 involved current and former female students at the University of Connecticut who filed a lawsuit claiming they were sexually assaulted on campus. The lawsuit in U.S. district court claims the school did not appropriately respond to the assaults. The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation.
Now, all 54 women in the state’s General Assembly, both Republicans and Democrats, are proposing legislation that would improve the way all Connecticut colleges respond to sexual assault allegations.
“The proposed language in this bill is a work in progress,” said one of the bipartisan supporters, State Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck. “However, having so many legislators come together on important legislation to add further protections for the students, professors and staff on our college campuses is another positive step in our fight to minimize, if not stop, sexual assault and exploitation across Connecticut.”
Eager to get to work, a public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 11 before the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee to discuss the legislative proposal. Lawmakers previously held a special hearing in November to specifically discuss the UConn allegations.
Some provisions legislators want as part of any new law include reporting to authorities any sexual assaults of students and employees; reporting of sexual assaults regardless of where they occurred, even if off-campus; requiring colleges and universities to contract with a local sexual assault crisis service center to provide free counseling and advocacy services to students and employees who report an assault; and allowing anonymous complaints in certain situations.
Legislation also would likely require each college and university to create, if they have not already, a sexual assault response team comprised of administrators, faculty, police, community sex assault crisis counselors and others to communicate “compassionately and sensitively” with victims.
“This bill will result in more support and direction for victims of sexual assault,” said State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, a vice-chair of the Higher Education Committee. “I’m especially pleased with new language that ensures there will be professionally trained advocates on call for any victim of sexual assault.”
Other nonprofit organizations, such as the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) and Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services Inc., also are supporting the measure.
Theresa Younger, executive director of PCSW, said the legislation is important as statistically one in four women are likely to be sexually assaulted during their college years.
Younger said the new legislation should improve the reporting of assaults, strengthen existing training programs and hold college administrators “accountable for what takes place on their campuses.
“It’s a timely response, and shows that our government officials were listening to the voices of women who spoke at the public hearings on this matter,” said Younger.
It is not only women in the General Assembly who are on board with making every effort to curb sexual assaults among college students.
“We have a draft bill that is a good road map for our ultimate legislation,” said state Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, who is senate chair of the Higher Education Committee.
Cassano also has further ideas to bring to the mix.
“I would like to see language in the bill that addresses the problem of alcohol abuse on our campuses,” he said. “Alcohol is so often a factor in sexual assaults, and I want to know what we currently allow and what we are doing—if anything—to prevent alcohol abuse. I also think we may want to look at the role technology could play in preventing or solving sexual assaults.”
Though the bill could conceivably go to the House and Senate after the Higher Education Committee finishes with it, sources said it also may go to the Judiciary Committee to look at the legal ramifications of the proposal first.
While lawmakers were planning ways to prevent future incidents of sexual assault, lawyers for UConn were responding in federal court to the four students who filed a federal lawsuit against the school for allegedly failing to protect them and responding with deliberate indifference or worse.
They are among seven UConn students and recent graduates who in October filed a civil rights complaint against the school. They are represented by high-profile civil rights attorney Gloria Allred.
According to a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, an investigation was launched into the allegations at UConn. Previously, the OCR told the Law Tribune that there were certain criteria that needed to be met before it would consider a probe.
The spokesman said the investigation, which began in early December, should take about six months.
“However, some cases take longer due to the complexity of the allegations,” said the spokesman, Jim Bradshaw.
He noted that if the OCR determines the university failed to comply with one of the civil rights laws that the office enforces, officials will attempt to negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement.
Last fall, Occidental College entered into a civil settlement agreement with 10 students to avoid a lawsuit after a similar OCR probe. Terms of the settlement were confidential. A total of 37 students were named in the initial complaint to the OCR.
Earlier this month, UConn formally responded to the allegations in U.S. district court. It was the first legal filing made by UConn since the allegations surfaced.
The 38-page document was filed by Wiggin and Dana attorneys Mary Gambardella, Joseph Martini and Aaron Bayer.
“The university strongly denies that it acted with deliberate indifference to any of the plaintiffs,” said Richard Orr, UConn’s general counsel. “That is the basic legal claim underlying each plaintiff’s allegations, and the university vigorously disputes that claim.”
The school acknowledges several accusations made in the lawsuit, including that it failed to notify one of the plaintiffs, Kylie Angell, when it rescinded the expulsion of her suspected attacker. But it denies that she had reported the incident at the time as a rape.
The university also said it doesn’t have enough information to confirm or deny her highly publicized allegation that she was told by a UConn police officer that women have to “stop spreading their legs like peanut butter.”
“There are many other allegations for which we do not yet have enough information to respond, as is common at this very preliminary stage of a lawsuit,” Orr said.
None of the men involved in the complaint ever faced criminal charges. The attacks allegedly occurred between 2010 and 2013, while the women were students at the school.
UConn, in its filing, denies a police officer told one plaintiff that he did not believe her when she reported being attacked by a football player. It also denies that it never asked for the name of a hockey player who allegedly raped another plaintiff.
Orr said the school is constrained by privacy laws from publicly commenting on many of the women’s specific allegations, but said it will be allowed to use student records in court to do that should the case go to trial.•
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)