The University of Connecticut (UConn) has agreed to pay nearly $1.3 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by five current and former female undergraduates who claimed the university  mishandled their complaints of sexual assault.

UConn was accused of mishandling rape cases and refusing to condemn or intervene following  reported harassment of female students, in violation of the federal gender equity law, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. The school, which has repeatedly defended its policies for responding to sexual assault complaints, did not admit any wrongdoing.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education is responsible for enforcing Title IX, which states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  In its April 2011 “Dear Colleague” Letter to university administrators addressing student-on-student sexual harassment and sexual violence, OCR detailed a school’s responsibility to respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence against students in accordance with the requirements of Title IX.  Title IX requires that all colleges and universities that receive federal funds investigate and resolve reports of sexual misconduct.

OCR began its Title IX investigation of UConn in December, after receiving complaints from four of the plaintiffs and three other women. That investigation, which could lead to  the loss of federal funds for the school, continues even though these four women withdrew their complaint to the Education Department.  UConn is one of at least 65 higher education institutions currently under review by OCR due to its handling of sexual assault cases.

In a joint statement issued by UConn and the plaintiffs regarding the settlement, the parties outlined the steps that UConn has taken (both before the litigation was filed and since), to strengthen and enhance its policies and procedures for addressing sexual violence.  These steps include:

  • Adopting a comprehensive Sexual Assault Response Policy;
  • Adopting an enhanced Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment and Inappropriate Romantic Relationships;
  • Enhancing its training program for management-level employees on issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence;
  • Establishing the position of Assistant Dean of Students for Victim Support Services to coordinate the delivery of services to victims of crime, including   sexual violence;
  • Centralizing UConn’s response to sexual violence that violates UConn’s Code of Conduct and University Policy;
  • Establishing a Special Victims Unit i9n the  UConn Police Department, with a team of officers trained in responding to sexual violence, available 24/7s;
  • Enhancing its educational program for all first year students, to include an increased emphasis on primary prevention, risk reduction and bystander intervention training;
  • During the 2014-2015 Academic Year, UConn will form a working group to further develop and refine sexual violence and bystander intervention training.

In a prepared statement,UConn President Susan Herbst acknowledged the responsibility of all colleges and universities to respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence against students: “This lawsuit may have been settled, but the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has not been. UConn, like all colleges and universities, must do all it can to prevent sexual violence on our campuses, hold perpetrators accountable, and provide victims with the resources and compassion they desperately need during a time of intense personal trauma.”