Connecticut lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for a public hearing on the sexual assault policies at the University of Connecticut. As the Hartford Courant reports, it’s somewhat rare for state legislators to join forces on bipartisan efforts. But, after seven women filed a federal complaint against UConn alleging that the school failed to protect victims of sexual assault, lawmakers from both parties want to hold the university accountable.
In addition to Title IX and the Clery Act, the federal laws that require universities to combat gender-based violence and accurately report cases of sexual assault, Connecticut also has its own state laws on the subject. In 2012, Connecticut enacted a law that requires all of the public and private colleges in the state to effectively enforce court-ordered restraining orders, work to standardize campus disciplinary proceedings, and implement sexual assault prevention programs on campus.
Nonetheless, the women who filed the formal complaint allege that UConn isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. They say that university officials have displayed “deliberate indifference” to incidents of sexual assault, and aren’t doing enough to bar rapists from campus. One woman said that when she went to campus police after her assailant harassed her on campus, an officer told her, “Women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter, or rape is going to keep happening until the cows come home.”
That’s prompting two Republican leaders in the General Assembly to push for a joint hearing with the state legislature’s public safety and higher education committees to address the issue. In their letter requesting for a hearing, the GOP lawmakers say they want to figure out whether it’s necessary to strengthen state law to effectively protect victims and discipline perpetrators. They point out that, since the students’ formal complaint suggests that UConn officials aren’t properly following state law, perhaps rape cases should be referred to state police instead so they can conduct an independent investigation.
“It is our obligation as a legislature to ensure that state law is being followed and also to determine whether improvements in the law are required to adequately protect victims of sexual assault,” state Sen. John McKinney (R), one of the letter’s authors and a current gubernatorial candidate, said on Thursday. “As public officials and university administrators, we must work together to ensure our universities enforce a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault.”
Not long after the Republican leadership’s statements, the Democrats in the state followed suit, noting that the issue of sexual assault transcends party lines. “There is no reason why this effort needed to be partisan — I’m happy to work with my Republican colleagues,” House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (D) noted. “Sexual assault on campus is too important an issue for political grandstanding.”
“One of the most basic responsibilities of our institutions of higher learning is to keep our young people safe,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (D) said on Thursday. “If they have failed in that responsibility in any way, or if any victim of sexual assault has been treated with anything but the utmost respect, I will be outraged.”
UConn’s president has dismissed the women’s allegations as “astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue.” A spokesperson for the university confirmed that officials would welcome the opportunity to participate in a public hearing on the matter.
This isn’t the first instance of state lawmakers seeking to intervene in sexual assault controversies on college campuses. As an increasing number of college activists are bringing more awareness to rape culture by filing a rush of formal complaints against their universities’ administrations, the national consciousness about these issues have been raised. In August, after students from several different colleges in California filed Title IX complaints, lawmakers in the Golden State demanded an investigation into universities’ inadequate sexual assault policies.