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Looking the Other Way?

July 16, 2013

Another institution has found itself embroiled in a sex scandal involving children, this time the University of Connecticut. A music professor has been put on administrative leave pending further investigation, but preliminary details about the case raise questions of who knew what when, and if allegations brought to the attention of university employees in 2006 were ignored.

UConn on Monday announced it was cooperating with law enforcement investigations into claims that Robert Miller committed sex crimes against minors, and investigating additional allegations that he had sex with students. The university also announced that it was seeking legal counsel and launching an internal investigation into how it handled those claims. No formal charges against Miller had been filed.

At the same time, the university launched a comprehensive website with information pertaining to the case and comments from institution leaders – seemingly signaling that it was getting ahead of the news and a commitment to transparency. But emerging details suggest that some at the university may have ignored the allegations. If that's so, the case would recall charges that some Penn State administrators looked the other way as Jerry Sandusky, the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach, abused young boys for years. And in another case of university officials looking the other way, the chancellor of Yeshiva University resigned earlier this month, apologizing in his statement of departure for not reporting to authorities allegations of sex abuse made by boys against a principal and a teacher at the university's high school in the 1970s and 1980s.

Miller has worked at UConn since 1982 and once served as chair of the music department. Allegations against him include that he molested young boys at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, where he served as a counselor from 1989 to 1992, and that he molested a student at Virginia’s former Whittier Intermediate School in the late 1960s to early 1970s, when he was a teacher there, the Associated Press reported. The statute of limitations has expired in Connecticut, but not in Virginia.

UConn also is looking into a Title IX investigation of allegations brought by another faculty member that Miller may have had sex with students and brought them drugs, according to university documents.

Miller, 66, was placed on paid administrative leave and barred from campus in late June, several months after Brid Grant, dean of the School of Fine Arts, received a letter dated December 2011 from an employee of the school. The letter, delivered February 13, said Miller may have had inappropriate contact with children in the past.

The professor did not respond to requests for comment.

Stephanie Reitz, university spokeswoman, said additional details about the letter, including who delivered it and if had originally been sent in 2011, were part of the investigation and could not be discussed.

Grant, who came to UConn in mid-2012, turned the letter over to the university’s Title IX coordinator. That office contacted the university’s office of labor relations and the assistant attorney general based at UConn. The university’s chief of police also was notified.

Reitz said police investigations dictated the university’s timeline for placing Miller on leave. He was notified the day after state officials searched his home and UConn seized his work computers, she said.

But employees of the university may have failed to act on allegations against Miller much earlier than this year. In its request for proposal for legal counsel, UConn states that police investigations since February “determined that between 2006 and 2011, several allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with minor children by this same faculty member were allegedly brought to the attention of university employees.”

It continues: “At least some of the allegations that were presented to UConn [police] in 2013 were allegedly received by a department head in 2011 but there are questions as to whether appropriate action was taken prior to 2013, when the department head advised a newly hired dean, who immediately took steps which resulted in those allegations coming to the attention of UConn [police].”

Reitz said the retirement of David G. Woods, former dean, had nothing to do with the Miller case. He did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment.

University leaders deny any deliberate cover-up since the letter surfaced this year, and say they acted immediately upon learning of the allegations.

“These allegations are deeply disturbing and require a very deliberate, comprehensive response that is both thorough and as transparent as possible,” said Lawrence McHugh, board chair and chairman of the special investigation committee. “The board of trustees and the university must treat these matters with the utmost care and seriousness. It is clear to the board that when these allegations were brought to the attention of current university personnel in 2013, the university took swift, decisive and careful action as this matter evolved.”

President Susan Herbst said in her own statement that “conducting a complete independent, outside review of how allegations were handled by the university prior to 2013 is essential. We hope that our response to this matter beginning earlier this year, and the transparency we are demonstrating, can serve as a model for other institutions that may face similar circumstances in the future.”

Still, some find the situation – particularly how long certain employees at the university may have known about the allegations against Miller and done nothing – alarming.

Daniel Swinton, senior executive vice president at the NCHERM Group, a law and consulting firm that advises schools and colleges on safer schools and campuses, is a former assistant dean and director of student conduct and academic integrity at Vanderbilt University. He called the case “disturbing,” and said it could have major legal ramifications for the university, depending on who the unspecified employees alerted to claims about Miller turn out to be. Responsible employees under Title IX – those who have authority to address and remedy such claims – are mandated reporters.

“So if it’s part-time custodial staff, or a department chair or another faculty chair, is a whole different story,” he said.

The university would be in particularly precarious legal spot if it was shown to be knowledgeable of sex abuse claims against an employee, and the abuse continued, he added.

As for relationships with students, Swinton said different institutions had different policies, but that it was probably generally frowned upon for faculty to make informal social visits to dorms, as Miller is reported to have done in university documents. Reitz said the university currently doesn’t have policy against consensual student-instructor sexual relationships, but was drafting one even before February.

“We expect this policy to be presented to the Board of Trustees for its consideration within the next several weeks,” she said.

Swinton also said the case raises questions about the effectiveness of background checks for faculty (although criminal charges were never filed against Miller). Reitz said that UConn in recent years has conducted criminal background checks for certain positions, such as police officers or those working with children, but not faculty. But starting next semester, all faculty and staff will undergo criminal background checks, she said.

To UConn’s advantage – and where the Miller case there differs significantly from the Penn State Case, he added -- the university seems to have acted swiftly when news reached upper-level administrators.

Still, the scope of cases can change once they become public and additional victims may feel comfortable coming forward, he said.

 

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