Trial highlights Conn College's response to sex-assault complaints

Connecticut College's response to complaints of sexual assault is on display in a New London courtroom at a time when the handling of such incidents is in the news.

Former college cook Jose A. Lopez, 46, of Waterford is accused of groping a college senior and a visitor to the college in separate incidents in the Harris Dining Hall last year. He has pleaded not guilty and opted for a trial.

As testimony got underway Friday before a jury of six females and two male alternates, the former student, now a 23-year-old graduate, described how she reached out to college officials, including the school's director of sexual violence prevention and advocacy, after the incident.

The University of Connecticut, a state university with tens of thousands of students, has been sued and publicly criticized in recent weeks for its alleged failure to adequately respond to complaints of sexual assault filed by seven former and current students. The university's president has disputed allegations that the college is insensitive to women who come forward.

At Connecticut College, a private liberal arts college with an enrollment of 1,900, officials say they have been working hard over the past several years to prevent sexual assaults on campus and to have a strong response program in place when complaints are filed.

The alleged victim in the Lopez case testified that she felt confused and unsafe in the aftermath of the incident and that everyone she spoke with, including campus safety officers, was kind. She said the incident occurred during spring break, when there were fewer people around, and that one faculty member invited her to spend the night at her off-campus apartment. Within 24 hours of the incident, she had spoken with "all the right people," she testified, and had received crisis counseling from Safe Futures in New London.

"You see more and more reports in the national news about colleges not responding in positive ways," said Sarah Cardwell, the college's associate dean of student life, during a phone interview Thursday. "We're all just kind of acutely aware that we need to be doing all we can."

The college has a Coordinated University Response Team that is chaired by the director of sexual violence prevention and advocacy, a position that was initially funded by a federal grant but is now supported by the college. Members consist of college officials and partners in the community who are available if students choose to go off-campus, Cardwell said.

The college has taken a proactive approach by educating students about sexual assault, encouraging "bystander intervention" by students who see something going wrong and having a strong support system in place when students come forward with sexual assault complaints.

"I think the new awareness around Title IX requirements has certainly highlighted a lot of struggles that campuses and students have," Cardwell said.

In April 2011, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education sent colleges and schools a "Dear Colleague" letter to explain that the requirements of Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding.

Victims of sexual assault often hesitate to come forward for a number of reasons, and many cases end in plea deals to spare victims from having to describe their ordeals in open court and face their alleged attackers. Lopez has not accepted a plea offer and is exercising his right to face his accusers in court. As a result, the former student endured hours of questioning by prosecutor Sarah Steere and defense attorney Pamala Favreau as the trial got underway Friday.

Accompanied into the courtroom by LeeAnn Vertefeuille, a victim advocate from the court system, she pointed briefly at Lopez and described his black suit and green shirt when asked if she recognized him in the courtroom. She fought to remain composed throughout her testimony, answering questions in a faltering voice and wiping away tears.

The woman said she was one of the few students who remained on campus to work during college breaks and that over the years she and other students had developed a close relationship with Lopez and other workers in the dining hall.

"We referred to him as 'Tio,' which is uncle (in Spanish)," she testified. She said Lopez seemed "to really care about" the students and was well-liked. She said she knew he had a wife and children. She said Lopez would hug her and other students and she never felt uncomfortable.

On March 20, 2012, the woman said she had spent several hours working in the dining hall when Lopez came over to her and shoved her into the booth she was sitting in so that she was in a tilted position. She said she was uncomfortable and asked him to stop.

"He said something like, 'Didn't I like it when he pushed against me hard like that?''' she testified. She told him no. She said Lopez put her right leg between his two legs, trapping her, then lifted her pant leg and started caressing her ankle.

"I was confused," she testified. "It all happened so fast. The next thing I knew his hand was in between my legs, fingering me through my pants."

She said Lopez, who had been a "friendly" and "constant" person in her life, was almost frantic in that moment. "It was aggressive and bizarre," she testified.

She said she asked Lopez to stop a few times and he finally removed his hands. Her phone rang, and he returned to the kitchen after saying something and laughing, she testified. She said she desperately wanted to leave the dining hall but her "mind wasn't working with her legs." Eventually something "clicked" and she left.

She immediately contacted a staff member and called the sexual assault hotline on campus, but initially hesitated to identify Lopez and provide details of the assault, she testified.

"One of the hardest things to me was knowing I was so close to graduating," she testified, sniffling. "I didn't want this to be a whole thing. I wanted to finish up college in a positive way."

She no longer felt safe on campus, however, so within a day, after talking to "all the right people" at the college and a sexual assault crisis worker from New London, she said she decided to report Lopez to college officials and police. She said she still had to go to the dining hall three times a day for meals and she thought about her friends continuing to interact with Lopez in her presence. She said college officials contacted New London police, and she provided a statement to Detective Frank Jarvis.

The trial will resume Tuesday.

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