The University of Connecticut will pay nearly $1.3 million to five current and former students to settle a federal lawsuit that accused the university of mishandling allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Most of the settlement -- $900,000 -- will go to just one student.
In a joint statement with the students, the university said it had agreed to settle to avoid a costly trial. It is not, UConn stated, an admission of guilt.
“A trial would have burdened both UConn and the plaintiffs for years, fighting over the past rather than working on the future,” the statement reads. “Accordingly, UConn and the plaintiffs have agreed to put to rest their factual disputes, settle the litigation, and move forward. That process has already started.”
Three of the students were also among seven sexual assault victims who filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in October.
As part of the settlement, the three students will withdraw their share of the OCR complaint, as well as separate complaints made with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. The Title IX investigation initiated by the original OCR complaint will continue.
The settlement, one of the largest and highest-profile conclusions yet to a multitude of sexual assault cases filed against colleges in recent months, comes as many campuses are rethinking their approach to sexual violence.
At a sexual assault summit hosted by Dartmouth College this week, several attendees expressed concerns about how colleges are expected to approach the adjudication process of sexual assault cases. Nearly 70 institutions are now being investigated for their handling of sexual assault investigations under Title IX.
Campus judicial systems, some argued, were never designed to address misconduct as serious as sexual violence – particularly in cases of acquaintance rape, which can quickly devolve into a confusing debate of “he said, she said.” During question-and-answer sessions, federal officials were unable to offer much guidance, though Lynn Rosenthal, the White House’s advisor on violence against women, said the National Institute of Justice was researching the issue.
Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary who oversees the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, made it clear that there was little wiggle room for colleges and universities who do not comply with the requirements of Title IX.
“There is no safe harbor,” Lhamon said. “If you satisfy the law, then you have safe harbor. If you don’t, you don’t. We’re not considering a middle ground.”
The UConn students, who are all represented by the lawyer Gloria Allred, went public with their identities and stories last fall.
Kylie Angell, who will receive $115,000 in the settlement, accused the university of not advising her of the resources and options available to her after she was raped in her dorm room by a classmate in 2010. That classmate was eventually expelled, but was allowed back on campus after an appeal – a fact Angell said she was not aware of until he literally bumped into her in a campus dining hall two weeks after his expulsion.
When Angell went to campus police about the incident, a female officer allegedly told her that “women have to just stop spreading their legs like peanut butter.” In its response to the lawsuit, the university denied that the officer made the comment.
Erica Daniels, who will receive $125,000, accused the university of not fully investigating her allegation that she was drugged and raped by a classmate in 2013. Following the filing of her Title IX complaint in October of that year, Daniels said she was further traumatized when a professor showed her criminal justice class a slide about the complaint that included a photograph of her.
Rosemary Richi, who will receive $60,000, accused the university of mishandling the investigation into her claim that she was raped by a UConn football player. Carolyn Luby, who will receive $25,000, accused the university of not taking any action when she became the victim of online sexual harassment and a widespread cyberbullying campaign after she criticized the university’s logo online. Another $60,000 of the settlement will be used to defray the students’ various legal fees.
The remaining $900,000 will go to a former UConn hockey player named Silvana Moccia.
Moccia, the last student to join the lawsuit, said she was raped by a male hockey player when she was a freshman in 2011. When she told her coach about the alleged rape a few days later, she said she was told that she was not “stable enough” to keep playing hockey at UConn and that she was no longer on the team. The university denies that the coach said this and maintains that the conversation focused on a knee injury that Moccia had not previously revealed.
The university reimbursed the tuition Moccia had spent so far, as well as her medical expenses. Catherine Cocks, UConn’s director of community standards, wrote a letter for her, stating that Moccia had been the victim of an “incident” and had left the university in good standing. The university's response to the lawsuit confirms that the university provided Moccia with medical expenses, but, because of privacy laws, cannot clarify if the expenses were related to her knee, the alleged rape, or both.
None of the accused men named in the lawsuit were ever charged by police.
UConn will not have to make any institutional changes as part of the settlement, despite the lawsuit and the students repeatedly accusing the university of “institutional indifference.” Even in the joint statement, the students still allege that the university's "overall response showed deliberate indifference."
The university, in the joint statement, acknowledged the role of the five students in “inspiring important public discussion” and the additional measures now being taken to address sexual assault on campus. Since the lawsuit, UConn has established a new assistant dean of students for victim support services, added two staff investigator positions, and created a Special Victims Unit in the UConn Police Department.
The Office of the Title IX Coordinator will now oversee all sexual assault investigations.
In the settlement agreement, UConn said it still “categorically denies” the students’ allegations, though it is unable to provide many other details because of privacy laws. In October, Susan Herbst, UConn's president, said that she "completely rejects" the notion that the university is indifferent to sexual assault.
“The suggestion that the University of Connecticut, as an institution, would somehow be indifferent to or dismissive of any report of sexual assault is astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue,” Herbst said. “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 must say it, or that any reasonable person would believe otherwise.”
Read more by
Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed
What Others Are Reading