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Hartford - Four women who say they were sexually assaulted as University of Connecticut students told state lawmakers Wednesday that they were further traumatized by the school's lack of support and called on the university to change its approach to sexual violence.
Carolyn Luby, a fifth-year student, said there is a pattern of behavior among school leaders "that shows a failure to take action and downright resistance" to complaints of sexual assault and harassment on campus.
"The responsibility for taking a stand on these issues should not fall on the shoulders of college students who are survivors," Luby told members of the General Assembly's Higher Education and Public Safety committees. "Administrators with power must start prioritizing safety of their students. It is long overdue for them to do this. And we want them to begin today."
The legislative committees are reviewing sexual assault prevention and response procedures at Connecticut colleges and universities, not just UConn. Lawmakers said they are looking into whether they need to pass additional legislation when the new session begins in February.
Earlier this month, the four women from UConn filed a federal lawsuit against UConn alleging the school had failed to protect them and had responded with deliberate indifference or worse. They are among seven students and recent graduates who last month filed a civil rights complaint against the school. They are represented by nationally known civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, who appeared at Wednesday's hearing.
The Associated Press does not normally report the names of those filing sexual assault complaints, but the women involved have asked that their names be used.
Several UConn officials also were on hand and listed the numerous programs and offices available to sexual assault victims, as well as the policies and procedures - including a student code of conduct - that are followed to prevent abuse and address the needs of victims.
Elizabeth Conklin, associate vice president of UConn's Office of Diversity and Equity, said the school wants to make sure students feel comfortable reporting assaults.
On average, only a fraction of assaults are reported, officials said Wednesday.
"Our intent at the highest levels is to increase reporting ..." Conklin said. "We have rolled out a series of trainings and policies designed to increase reporting. Our numbers are up, not just for sexual violence, but for harassment and discrimination."
Some lawmakers expressed concern that there may be a communication gap among the groups that handle sexual assault matters, as well as the between the administration and the student body to make students feel safe and supported on campus.
"There's not a lot of consistency in that messaging," Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton said.
Earlier in the day, UConn President Susan Herbst said at a board of trustees meeting that some of her comments from an Oct. 23 board meeting were misinterpreted.
At that meeting, Herbst said, "the suggestion that the University of Connecticut as an institution would be indifferent to or dismissive of any report of sexual assault is astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue. This is so obvious to those of us who work here and deal with these serious and painful issues that I am stunned that I even have to say it, or that any reasonable person would believe otherwise."
While the four women took Herbst's comments as a personal attack, Herbst said Wednesday that she was "only responding to the broad allegation of institutional indifference." She admitted that she gave "the impression that I was commenting directly on the individual students, or their cases, or the specific claims that had been made. I was not."
Herbst, who was not at Wednesday's hearing, said she never would comment directly on the students and their cases, out of respect for their privacy, the legal process and "most importantly, out of respect for them."
Allred appeared unconvinced. "We think she said what she meant and meant what she said," Allred said.
Connecticut lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 that requires public and private higher education institutions to adopt and disclose policies on sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Those policies include providing information to students about their options for assistance if they are victims; disciplinary procedure and possible sanctions. The law also requires institutions to offer prevention and awareness programs.