Four Students File Federal Lawsuit Against UConn

Nov 1 2013

As it appeared in The Hartford Courant

By KATHLEEN MEGAN,, The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — Three current students and one recent graduate filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the University of Connecticut, alleging that the university violated their rights by not providing them with adequate protection and assistance after they were raped or sexually assaulted.

“All four women in this case share an unfortunate bond in that they were victimized twice while students at UConn,” said Nina Pirrotti, a New Haven attorney for the young women. “Once by their assailants and again by the university to whom they turned for help.”

The four young women gathered outside the federal courthouse with Pirrotti and civil rights attorney Glorial Allred to announce the suit.

“This is not about whether rape or sexual assault occurred,” Allred said. “This is about whether the university has complied with its legal obligations under Title IX in the handling of reports of rape and/or sexual assault, and that’s very different.”

“Most people don’t even know this is possible … because it’s a relatively new area of the law,” she said. “This is the pioneering stage.”

On Oct. 21, the four young women and three other unnamed students filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights alleging that the UConn had neither protected them from sexual assault nor provided them with adequate help after they reported being assaulted.

The Office of Civil Rights is now evaluating the complaint to decide whether to investigate it. While Title IX complaints are aimed at changing a university’s policy and procedures, a civil lawsuit affords the victims monetary damages.

Federal lawsuits often are filed in tandem with federal Title IX complaints, according to Daniel C. Swinton, senior executive vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management.

“Strategically, I would call it kind of textbook,” said Swinton, who is an attorney. “It makes sense to do it in a split fashion. You get everyone’s attention. … It’s a way to up the ante.”

The civil lawsuit filed Friday asks for an award of compensatory damages to the plaintiffs for their emotional distress, resulting from UConn’s “deliberate indifference” and also asks the court to order UConn to revise its policies, procedures and practices “so that it is in compliance with Title IX.”

UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said an email that the university will “carefully assess the allegations” in the lawsuit but could not discuss specific allegations because of federal student privacy protections and the pending litigation.

Reitz added: “UConn is committed to a campus community free from all forms of sexual violence, harassment, exploitation and intimidation. … 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 38-page lawsuit filed Friday goes into detail on the plaintiffs’ allegations that their reports of rape or sexual assault were met with a lack of responsiveness from administrators and UConn police.

During their news conference, the four women also lashed out against UConn President Susan Herbst for comments she made on at a Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 23, two days after they filed their Title IX complaint.

“President Herbst’s response made me feel invalidated all over again,” said Rose Richi, a junior, who alleges that her report of rape to a UConn detective was met with disbelief. “And to question our motives? Our only motive is to get change, something she made clear was unnecessary.”

Erica Daniels, a UConn senior who alleges that she was drugged and raped by a student, said, “I was in shock, hurt and disappointed that someone with the power and authority to make a change simply dismissed us.”

In an email Friday, Reitz said that “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.”

Reitz said 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,” Reitz said. “That is what she described as ‘misguided’ and ‘untrue,’ and was not in any way discussing the women’s allegations.”

Reitz said late Friday that Herbst did not want to comment further.

The legal standards are more demanding in a federal civil rights lawsuit than in a Title IX complaint, Swinton said. In a federal lawsuit, he said, lawyers must show that an institution had “actual knowledge of an alleged violation and behaved in a manner that was deliberately indifferent.”

In a Title IX complaint, he said, the focus is on whether the environment is “hostile,” based on evidence that is “severe, pervasive or persistent.”

Swinton said he expects that the case will be settled before it ever goes to court. “Quite honestly,” he said, “I don’t think UConn wants a public lawsuit.”

Late Friday afternoon, the legislature’s Higher Education and Public Safety committees announced they will hold a hearing Nov. 13 to consider the sexual assault reporting and investigative policies and procedures of public and private universities in Connecticut.



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