Courageous actions to force change

For a university administration that initially expressed incredulity when several students contended their claims of sexual assault had been handled with insensitivity by campus authorities, it is remarkable to witness how much the University of Connecticut has sought to improve and pay up.

Last week came the announcement that UConn had agreed to a nearly $1.3 million settlement with five former and current students who filed the lawsuit over the institution's handling of their sexual assault claims.

UConn President Susan Herbst said in a statement concerning the settlement that the "lawsuit may have been settled, but the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has not been. UConn, like all colleges and universities, must do all it can to prevent sexual violence on our campuses, hold perpetrators accountable, and provide victims with the resources and compassion they desperately need during a time of intense personal trauma."

Those sensible, sensitive comments were a welcome about-face from her initial reaction when the young women came forward in October 2013. Back then, the UConn president appeared flummoxed about what the heck the students and their attorney were talking about.

"The suggestion that the University of Connecticut, as an institution, would somehow be indifferent 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," she told her board of trustees back then.

While the settlement came with the perfunctory statement that UConn admits no wrongdoing, actions taken by the university show that officials recognized the need for improvement and that some who worked there, and dealt with the "painful issues" confronting these women, did not always deal with them appropriately.

Last August the university approved a tougher policy concerning any discrimination against or harassment of individuals who report claims of sexual assault. Adopting the recommendations of a task force she appointed, President Herbst announced in February designation of a single point of contact for student victims, addressing past confusion. UConn plans to improve training and education to recognize and prevent sexual violence and encourage bystanders to intervene when they witness inappropriate behavior.

At the state level, Connecticut lawmakers this year approved a law intended to improve the response of all universities and colleges to allegations of sexual assault, making reporting easier and assistance quickly available.

The most egregious allegations in the UConn lawsuit were filed by Silvana Moccia, an ice hockey player who said she was raped her freshman year by a male hockey player. A team doctor told her it was best if she transferred and she lost her spot on the team, she claimed. She receives $900,000 in the settlement.

Damages paid to the other plaintiffs range from $25,000 to $125,000.

The women had also filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which assures students receive an education free from violations of their human and civil rights. The five women involved in the settlement drop their Title IX complaint, but it continues because three other current or former students who are not part of the deal also signed the complaint.

As part of the settlement, UConn "acknowledges the roles of the named plaintiffs in inspiring important public discussion regarding the issues of sexual violence."

Rather than going on the defensive, the administration should have made that acknowledgement from the start.

The courage of these young women in coming forward will reduce the chances of future students confronting the same traumatic events.

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