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  • U.S. Department of Education Decides to Investigate the University of Connecticut’s Sexual Assault Policies

    The U.S. Department of Education recently decided to launch a federal investigation into the University of Connecticut’s (“UConn”) sexual assault policies, in response to a formal Title IX complaint that was filed by seven current and former UConn students. The Title IX complaint alleges the UConn administration was deliberately indifferent to issues of sexual violence and failed to adequately respond to allegations of sexual assault and sexual violence on campus.

    Title IX is a federal law that protects students from sexual discrimination in any education program that receives federal financial assistance. Schools have an obligation under Title IX to prevent, address and investigate incidents of sexual harassment, sexual violence, and sexual abuse.  After a Title IX complaint is filed with the U.S. Department of Education, its Office for Civil Rights begins an evaluation to determine whether the complaint warrants an investigation.

    In the UConn complaint, the students are claiming that UConn violated their federal rights insofar as it displayed “deliberate indifference” to issues of sexual assault and did not properly investigate reports of rape and sexual harassment as required by Title IX. For example, Kylie Angell stated that after she was raped by a classmate in a dorm, she reported the incident to the university, and the university expelled her alleged rapist for improper sexual misconduct. However, two weeks later, the alleged rapist was allowed back on campus because “apparently the Vice President of Student Affairs felt that expulsion for having raped me was too severe” stated Angell. The university did not notify Angell that her alleged rapist’s expulsion had been reversed, and he allegedly approached her in the dining hall on his first day back. When the alleged rapist began harassing Angell, she reported the harassment to campus police, but a campus officer told her that “women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter or rape is going to keep on happening ‘til the cows come home.”

    The lead complainant in the UConn case, Carolyn Luby, has publically stated that “the administration is in constant denial of the existence of rape culture and the institutional inequality on this campus. The deliberate indifference the university displays provides the camouflage for perpetrators to continue their violent behavior with little to no consequence.” Luby further claims that the university did not respond to her report that she was “receiving rape and death threats through every facet of the Internet, as well as from students on campus.”  In the alternative, Luby contends that the UConn campus police “told her to wear a hat so that people wouldn’t recognize her.”  Two more of the complainants, Rose Richi and Erica Daniels, also claim that the university did not acknowledge or investigate their reports of being raped due to “lack of information.”

    In response to the Title IX complaint, UConn President Susan Herbst stated that the “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.” University spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz stated “we care deeply for the safety and welfare of all of our students. 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.”

    If the U.S. Department of Education finds that there is a legitimate basis for the students’ allegations, UConn is at risk of losing federal funding and incurring substantial sanctions. Additionally, four of the seven UConn complainants have subsequently filed a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction and monetary damages for discrimination, and the state legislature is also investigating UConn’s sexual assault policies.

    In the past year, there have been an unprecedented number of reports of colleges and universities allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases. Schools have an obligation to make their campuses a safe place for all students, and schools must review and revise their policies to make sure that they are complying with this obligation and reducing the risk of sexual assault. Additionally, schools need to make sure that their sexual assault investigations are in compliance with Title IX, as well as additional federal and state laws.

    If your institution has questions or concerns about this topic and you would like further information, please email James G. Ryan at jryan@cullenanddykman.com or call him at (516) 357-3750. This article was written with Hayley Dryer, an associate at the firm.