UConn recently settled with five female students who alleged that the school mishandled investigations into their claims of sexual assault and harassment. A university spokesperson said the $1.3 million settlement was to avoid “fighting over the past rather than working on the future” — a mindset worth maintaining for UConn while it moves on from this ugly chapter.
Backlash and disregard experienced by all five plaintiffs range from disappointing to shocking. Undergraduate Carolyn Luby penned an op-ed criticizing the university’s new Husky logo as an overaggressive caricature which might reinforce rape culture. Subsequently, Luby received harassment locally and nationally (even Rush Limbaugh weighed in). In an insufficient response, Storrs police allegedly suggested she keep a low profile and wear a hat around campus.
The four rape victims fared even worse. One was a female hockey player who said she was sexually assaulted by a member of the men’s team. When she attempted to bring the incident to light, her coach kicked her off the team so that she would not become a distraction. (UConn will pay her $900,000 for this mistreatment.)
The student who allegedly raped Kylie Angell was expelled from campus, but then let back on a year later, without prior notification to the victim. Moreover, a police officer purportedly 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.” Other plaintiffs claimed that UConn was too quick to drop investigations into their assaults.
Although the school denies exercising “deliberate indifference” toward allegations of rape, the substantial amount paid to the plaintiffs is an acknowledgment that UConn’s prior systems for handling sexual assaults were grossly inadequate. Therefore, beyond it preventing an extended and damaging court case, the $1.3 million settlement can also be part of the investment toward a safer tomorrow for all students.
As a result of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, UConn has already begun to overhaul how it deals with rape. Campus police formed a special victims unit. A new assistant dean will also support victims, and the college has centralized its response to sexual violence. In another important step, UConn expanded educational programming on bystander intervention.
The latter is where the school could continue to develop it commitment to obviate the problem. Educational programming should communicate unambiguous messages toward a diverse audience on campus. For would-be perpetrators, rape is to be defined as a loathsome, illegal violation of another person, which results in expulsion and criminal charges. Victims must know of their rights, and where help is readily available. Bystanders and associates should try to stop assaults and/or help report them as soon as possible. And police investigations should be more thorough and considerate.
These are messages worth broadcasting across campus. Different forms of programming could include discussions during orientation, professional training, dorm meetings and in the mandatory first-year class for new enrollees. Otherwise, UConn just paid $1.3 million to silence a select few victims, rather than to invest in a future in which all students can feel more secure from the nightmarish prospect of sexual assault.
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