The University of Connecticut has agreed to pay just over $1.2 million to five current and former students to settle a Title IX lawsuit alleging the mishandling of sexual assault and harassment complaints.
The university denies the allegations, but said in a joint statement with the plaintiffs Friday that it shares “the same goals: to eliminate sexual and gender-based harassment and violence ... to make UConn the safest possible campus and, when incidents do occur, to support survivors and to hold perpetrators accountable.”
The settlement also included $60,000 to pay for attorney’s fees incurred by the plaintiffs. And UConn is still the subject of an investigation by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), based on similar complaints by these and other students.
The settlement is “very powerful” because the assault survivors “are getting remedies,” says Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, which supports survivors. Often schools have to change their policies after being investigated for violating Title IX, she says, but rarely have survivors been compensated for what they’ve been through after reporting a sexual assault.
It’s also a signal that universities, which have long been fearful of litigation from students accused of sexual misconduct, now have to be just as concerned about lawsuits from survivors, Ms. Dunn says.
The fact that there are both civil litigation opportunities and investigations by OCR is important, says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women. “With an epidemic of this magnitude, we really are going to need as many tools as possible to reduce the number [of sexual assaults] and make the climate safer on campus,” she says.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit – factually contested by the university: One student who was raped was not informed that the perpetrator was let back on campus on appeal several weeks after being expelled; another, speaking to a campus police officer, accused a classmate of raping her in her dorm and said she was told that “women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter.”
Attorney Gloria Allred represented the plaintiffs and has taken on several such cases in recent years. “I’m really proud of these young women, because when you speak truth to power, that’s difficult,” said Ms. Allred, flanked by four of the five UConn plaintiffs at a press conference in Hartford, Conn.
“We’re very, very exceedingly happy with the result in this case,” she said, and other colleges should realize that “many college students are aware of their rights under Title IX ... and many of them are asserting their legal remedies.”
A number of Allred’s cases have been settled confidentially, including one at Occidental College in Los Angeles, in which plaintiffs agreed not to talk publicly about their complaints, the Los Angeles Times reported last year.
"This lawsuit [involving UConn] may have been settled, but the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has not been,” UConn President Susan Herbst said in a statement Friday. “The University has taken many positive, important steps in the battle against sexual assault in recent years ... but there is still more to be done."
The steps the university has taken include:
- Adopting a comprehensive Sexual Assault Response Policy in 2012, making it mandatory for most employees to report allegations of sexual assault to university authorities.
- Centralizing its response to reports of sexual assault under the office of the Title IX coordinator and adding two investigators to the staff.
- Creating a 24/7 specially trained unit in the UConn Police Department to respond to sexual violence.
- Enhancing educational programming for first-year students, emphasizing prevention and bystander intervention.
- Implementing recommendations of a civility task force after a student received hateful backlash for publishing a letter about sexual violence at UConn.
For the plaintiffs to have prevailed in the lawsuit, they would have had to show that the university was deliberately indifferent after they faced circumstances that deprived them of equal access to their education, and the courts have set a high bar for proving such indifference, says Bruce Berman, a partner at WilmerHale law firm in Washington who represents universities in Title IX cases.
Especially since the Department of Education sent out Title IX guidance on the issue of sexual violence in 2011, Mr. Berman says, universities have been working hard “to make sure their misconduct policies and grievance procedures are compliant.”
Lawsuits by students predated the Dear Colleague letter, however. In December 2007, after a lengthy court battle involving appeals, the University of Colorado at Boulder settled with former student Lisa Simpson for $2.5 million for a sexual assault that allegedly occurred in 2001. She said the university had been aware for years of alcohol abuse and sexual assaults occurring during visits of football recruits and had failed to remedy the sexually hostile environment that led her alleged rape.