UConn president defends response to sex assaults

October 23, 2013 - 5:34 PM
UConn Sexual Assaults

University of Connecticut students watch and photograph President Susan Herbst as she speaks to the media about the federal civil rights complaint filed Monday by seven women, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, in Storrs, Conn. The seven women allege they were assaulted while attending UConn and that officials responded with deliberate indifference or worse. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst on Wednesday gave an impassioned defense of the school's response to alleged sexual assaults on campus, two days after a federal civil rights complaint was filed by seven women who say they were assaulted while attending the school.

The women allege school officials responded to their complaints with deliberate indifference or worse.

Herbst told the university's Board of Trustees that she could not discuss the individual cases because of federal privacy laws, but said the school takes the issue very seriously and provides numerous resources to ensure that victims of sexual harassment and assault receive compassion, care and justice.

"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," she said.

Herbst outlined steps UConn has taken to become what she says is a national leader in the field of dealing with sexual harassment and assault. Those include mandatory student and employee training on how to prevent and report sexual assault; a task force looking into issues such as how alcohol and drug use contribute to the problem; and a website that provides information on sexual assault and prevention and response.

She acknowledged the school failed to inform one woman when her alleged attacker was allowed to return to campus after an appeal of his expulsion, but said that occurred three years ago and the process has since been corrected.

Gloria Allred, the attorney representing the seven women who filed the complaint, said that Herbst doesn't want to acknowledge that there is a problem.

"She wants to make believe that all of these women that have filed complaints against UConn are malcontents that simply have it wrong. No, President Herbst, it is you that has it wrong," Allred said. "This problem is real and unless and until the UConn administration is willing to open its eyes and look at the problem objectively and take steps to remedy the problems it will continue."

Board chairman Larry McHugh said Herbst has the trustees' full support.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Elizabeth Conklin, the school's Title IX coordinator, said UConn's Community Standards Office thoroughly investigates every report of sexual misconduct. She said the goal is to be fair to both the victims and the accused.

UConn Police Chief Barbara O'Connor said there are no criminal or internal affairs investigations underway related to the civil rights complaint, which includes an allegation that a female police officer told one of the victims, "Women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter or rape is going to keep happening until the cows come home.'"

She said that officer has no memory of making that statement. She said that students should immediately report incidents.

"We would institute an internal affairs investigation and we'd want to address it," O'Connor said.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said their Office for Civil Rights in Boston is evaluating the complaint to determine if the allegations warrant investigating. Conklin said the school has yet to receive a copy.

The complaint, if upheld, could lead to sanctions including the loss of federal money.

Conklin said there were 13 reported sexual assaults on campus last year and that a recent increase comes as a result of efforts to educate students on how to report abuse.

Suma Hussain, a fifth-year student from Newington, said she believes there is a culture at UConn that tolerates rape. She said she would like to have heard a greater commitment to doing more, rather than a defense of what is already is in place.

"How is it that these things happen and at the same time we're hearing about cuts to the women's center and the cultural center and we're building a basketball center?" she said. "That's what I think is kind of sad."