** This investigation involves descriptions of sexual and physical violence that may not be suitable for all readers. The name of the victim and family members have been changed.**
A little before 10 p.m. on a cool night in May 2020, Molly awaited the arrival of her ex-boyfriend, Peyton Stephens, at her apartment in New Britain. The pair had started dating in late 2018 but had called it quits earlier in the year. The visit was meant to be friendly and casual, but there was also a lingering issue that needed to be resolved.
For months, Molly had been receiving harassing messages from a bogus Instagram account. The messages were erratic and rude. On this particular night, the person behind the account messaged Molly, telling her that she had a sexual relationship with Stephens while the couple was dating.
Wanting to sort out the issue of the anonymous person harassing her before allowing him into her apartment, Molly met Stephens in the parking lot of her building. However, the conversation did not go well, and the situation quickly devolved, following the same violent trends that Molly says had led to their breakup months earlier.
About two hours later, the police would arrive to take photos of Molly’s injuries and collect her statement detailing the assault she had just suffered. In the early morning hours of the next day, Stephens was arrested on charges of 3rd-degree Domestic Violence and 2nd-degree Breach of Peace.
Following Stephens’ arrest, Molly’s family reported the matter to the Central Connecticut State University’s (CCSU) Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (OSRR). As Stephens was a baseball player attending the university on an athletic scholarship at the time, his actions and subsequent arrest left him open to discipline by the university.
However, after an investigation by the OSRR, both Molly and her mother, Diana, were apparently shut out of the hearing and disciplinary proceedings against Stephens by CCSU officials. Moreover, in its handling of the case, CCSU violated a number of its own policies regarding its Student Code of Conduct and the rights of victims of intimate partner violence.
Both CCSU and the Board of Regents for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system rejected Molly and her mother’s requests to obtain the results of the hearings by improperly citing protection under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
To this day, neither Molly nor her mother is aware of any discipline Stephens faced from CCSU but do know that he was able to remain a student at the school, continued to participate in athletics as a member of the baseball team and ultimately graduated from the university.
Molly and Peyton began dating toward the end of 2018, but it wasn’t long after the relationship started that it became unhealthy and abusive. According to a statement from Molly, Stephens would be physically violent with her, punching or hitting her and throwing her up against walls. Molly kept the abuse a secret but confided in a few close friends and her brother, Jacob.
In addition to the physical violence, Molly said that he would also abuse her emotionally and damage her property. According to Molly, Stephens smashed her phone, cracked her television screen, shattered the windshield of her car and punched a hole in her apartment bathroom door, which he allegedly admitted to and helped Molly’s father fix.
Due to extreme anxiety and the outward appearance of her injuries brought on by the abuse, Molly was unable to attend many of her classes at the University of Hartford (UHart) where she was enrolled as a full-time student. In January 2020 she requested a medical withdrawal from UHart, citing a “very unhealthy, abusive, intimate relationship” as a factor in her desire to leave the university. Her request was granted in March 2020.
After the couple broke up, Stephens’ abuse continued. According to Molly, he would enter her secured apartment building by using her password on the security keypad in the lobby, scream in the hallway and bang on her door at night while she and her roommate hid. He would also sit in his car across the street from her apartment and watch for her to exit the building.
On the night of the 2020 assault, during the conversation about the harassing texts Molly was receiving, Stephens became agitated and spit in her face and then slapped her in the face, according to a statement Molly provided to CCSU’s investigator. In response, Molly stuck chewing gum in his hair. Stephens then proceeded to his car where he called Molly’s mother and claimed that Molly was harassing him.
“My husband and I were home, we were watching a movie, and my cell phone rings, and I see the caller ID says, Peyton Stephens. And I showed my husband, I’m like, ‘what the fuck is he calling me for?’” Molly’s mother, Diana, said. “So, I picked it up and I said, ‘Peyton?’ He said, ‘yeah, she won’t let me leave’ and I said, ‘who won’t let you leave?’ And I could hear my daughter screaming in the background. He says, ‘Molly, Molly won’t let me leave.’”
Knowing that they broke up months ago, Diana was confused as to why they were together. When she asked Peyton why he was with Molly, he told Diana that she was upset about a message she got, mumbled something inaudible, then hung up the phone.
“I was terrified because of her screaming in the background,” Diana said. “I could hear her saying something, “You hit me, Peyton. You hit me.” And then she’d scream some other words, which I could not understand. But I heard her scream multiple times. ‘You hit me. You hit me.’”
At this point, Molly was standing near Stephen’s open car door. According to Molly, Stephens, who is listed as 6-foot-2 inches tall and 200 pounds, grabbed her by her head, pulled her into his car, smashed her head repeatedly against his steering wheel and dashboard and slammed the car door on her torso and ribs several times before kicking her to the ground and then driving off.
After hearing Molly’s screams, Diana immediately called 911 and reported the assault. Molly’s parents arrived at her apartment about 10 minutes later and found their daughter bloodied and bruised. Diana took pictures of Molly’s injuries, including a large contusion on her forehead, scratches on her chest, a broken fingernail and abrasions on her hands, calves, knees and thighs. These injuries would be documented in a medical visit shortly thereafter, where Molly would also be diagnosed with a concussion and sprained finger.
When the New Britain police arrived approximately an hour and a half later, according to Diana, they collected a statement from Molly and took their own photos of her injuries. The police then asked Molly if she wanted to press charges. Initially, Molly said no. Stephens stood to lose his baseball scholarship and she didn’t want to see Stephens kicked off the team and expelled from the university.
However, after talking it over with her family, Molly decided that Stephens needed to be held accountable. Hoping that Stephens would get the help he needed so he wouldn’t hurt anyone else, Molly told the officers that she would be pressing charges.
In the early morning hours of the following day, the New Britain Police Department told Molly they questioned Stephens and arrested him on charges of 3rd-degree Domestic Violence and 2nd-degree Breach of Peace. He was then released on bond.
Two days after Stephens’ arrest, Diana spoke with the college’s OSRR Director Stephanie Reis on the phone to report the assault. The next day she followed up with Reis via email and described the injuries Molly sustained, outlined the CCSU policies Stephens may have violated and asked if Reis needed anything more from her in order to get the investigation going. She also asked if she should alert the Athletics Department to the matter.
The response was curt. Reis’s response, in its entirety, read: “Thank you for the information and I will be looking into the situation.”
Since Reis did not indicate whether she would alert the Athletics Department of the assault and the investigation, Molly’s brother Jacob, advocating on behalf of his sister and with her approval, made sure the department was aware of the situation.
On May 22nd, Jacob sent an email to 13 CCSU staff. Among the recipients were President Zulma Toro, Athletics Director Tom Pincince, Senior Associate Athletics Director Michael Ansarra, Head Baseball Coach Charlie Hickey and Assistant Baseball Coaches Pat Hall and Rob Bono.
In the email, Jacob described Stephens’ assault on his sister and the charges brought against him. He also made it clear that it wasn’t the first time Stephens had been violent with Molly.
“I wish I was able to say that this was a one-time occurrence. However, over the past 6 months or so, it hasn’t been uncommon for mutual friends to speak of times [when] he laid hands on my sister,” Jacob wrote. “Often leaving my sister with a bruised nose, a black eye, or cuts throughout her body. Seeing these injuries firsthand infuriated and disgusted me but each time that these stories were brought to my attention I was asked to keep [them] confidential as my sister feared for her safety. Luckily the concussion, bruises and scrapes Mr. Stephens left her with after the incident [on May 16th, 2020] will heal, but the damage he has caused goes much deeper than the surface.”
Jacob concluded his email with an emotional appeal to the recipients and asked that they take the initiative in investigating the assault of his sister.
“I am no lawyer or policeman, however, I am an older brother who is fed up with the senseless violence that has caused my family so much pain in the past months from this individual,” Jacob said. “I hope that the recipients of this letter will question Mr. Stephens and conduct an investigation of their own.”
Jacob never received a response from any of the recipients.
However, just hours after Jacob sent the email, Reis responded to Diana’s emails and informed her that she would be alerting the Athletics Department and also working with the department to conduct their investigation.
CCSU student-athletes are bound to the same code of conduct as the rest of the student body outlined in CCSU’s Student Handbook. Additionally, though, student-athletes are required to sign and abide by a student-athlete code of conduct which states that violations of the contract may result in dismissal from the team and the cancellation of an athletic scholarship.
The agreement also states that student-athletes may be suspended from participation in athletics if they get arrested.
“Further, it is the policy of the Athletics Program that the Director of Athletics has the authority to immediately suspend from athletic participation for a time period to be determined by the Director, any student-athlete charged with a crime or arrested for any reason,” section C item four reads. “When possible, the Director of Athletics will discuss the matter with the head coach prior to taking action.”
Although the Athletics department was alerted to his arrest by both Reis and Molly’s brother, the Director of Athletics and Head Coach did not choose to exercise this authority. Apparently, Stephens was allowed to continue participating in team activities and games.
After opening the misconduct case with OSRR, communication from Reis was sparse. Although she was charged with investigating the incident, Reis only provided updates on her progress when Diana reach out after weeks or months of silence. However, the updates themselves were vague. Reis would merely state that her investigation was “ongoing” or that she was “gathering more information.”
Over the course of her investigation, Reis gathered information and statements from Molly, Diana and other family members and friends who had been present during the abuse or saw the signs of abuse, such as bruises on Molly, according to email correspondence between Reis and Diana. She also collected photographs of Molly’s injuries, medical records from after the assault and Molly’s appeal letter to the University of Hartford.
Reis also indicated to Diana that she had been able to obtain a copy of the police report from Stephens’ arrest, although, it’s not exactly clear how she was able to do so. According to the victim advocate assigned to Molly’s case from the Prudence Crandall Center, Daniela Bellows, police reports aren’t available to the general public while the case is still pending. The only people able to access police reports while an investigation is ongoing are the police and the state’s attorney’s office.
Despite the CCSU Student Handbook stating that victims are entitled to a “timely process”, Reis’ investigation lasted over 10 months. Molly and her family spent nearly a year in the dark, not knowing where Reis was in her investigation and wondering why it was taking so long for her to speak to witnesses.
In an email to Reis dated Aug. 19th, 2020, Diana inquired as to why Reis had not yet interviewed the witnesses that Molly provided to her months ago. In response, Reis did not provide a reason for the delay, only saying that the investigation was still ongoing. However, three months later, Diana learned that the witnesses still had not been interviewed six months after the assault was reported to OSRR. She reached out again to Reis for an explanation and again received a dismissal.
“Yes, they will be spoken to before the findings are shared. I appreciate the follow-up,” Reis said.
Although he was under investigation for the assault, Diana learned through mutual friends of Molly and Stephens that he was training with the team for the upcoming baseball season prior to the start of the fall semester, according to a whistleblower report.
As the investigation dragged into the new year and the baseball season was set to begin, the Athletics Department added insult to injury. While promoting the baseball team being ranked as the number two program heading into the season in a Northeast Conference coaches’ poll on Instagram, the department posted a photo of Stephens sliding into a base.
“I find this disrespectful and insensitive. Of all the photos of the baseball team, why was Stephens’ photo used? Has the Athletic Department forgotten that he is under misconduct investigation,” Diana wrote. “By posting his photo, I am led to believe that CCSU, specifically the Athletic Department, is more concerned with status than justice or acknowledging the seriousness of the issue at hand.”
Diana continued by taking aim at the pace of the investigation and the apparent failure of CCSU in holding Stephens to account.
“It has been nearly 9 months and this case is still pending. Stephens has been allowed to be a participating baseball athlete and an academic student on scholarship. And now he is given accolades in a social media post,” Diana said. “How is this fair? Why does CCSU have misconduct policies if they are not enforced in a timely manner? Why promote and protect a student who has a proven domestic violence record?”
Reis responded two days later, on Feb. 19th, 2021, stating that Athletics was looking into the situation and assured her that “these matters are taken seriously”. Reis also informed Diana that she was at the end of her investigation and was waiting to hear back from Molly on a few things before proceeding.
Then the door was slammed in Molly and her family’s faces.
Although the assault did not occur on CCSU property, the university’s Student Handbook is clear that the scope of its Student Code of Conduct can apply to off-campus misconduct by students should it meet certain criteria. One such standard is if a student engages in prohibited conduct that causes the reasonable belief that the accused student poses a threat to the life, health, or safety of any member of the CSCU or to the property of CSCU.
Furthermore, the Board of Regents (BOR), which is the governing body for the CSCU system, and CSCU directly claims the responsibility to protect its students by enforcing its Student Code of Conduct.
“It is the BOR’s and CSCU’s responsibility to protect our students’ right to learn by establishing an environment of civility,” the Student Handbook states. “The disciplinary process is intended to be part of the educational mission of CSCU.”
It is under the prohibited conduct clause that CCSU had grounds to start formal proceedings, showing that they believed that Stephens’ conduct made him a threat to its student body. However, CCSU and the BOR’s treatment of Molly and its handling of the hearings process would amount to a disregard for its policies and procedures regarding sexual and physical assault.
Following Reis stating that her investigation was complete, Diana had some questions: how was Reis able to obtain the police report when Molly and her family were unable to? Since Molly was still trying to heal and wouldn’t be attending the hearing on her therapist’s recommendation, who would represent her? Who else would be at the hearing and when would it take place?
According to CCSU policy, both the complainant and respondent may be accompanied by an advisor or support person of the student’s choice to any meeting or proceeding provided the advisor or support person does not cause scheduling conflicts or actively participate in the process. The hearing body also has the authority to admit any person into the hearing room as it sees fit.
Concerned that Molly’s absence would negatively affect the outcome of the hearing, Diana informed Reis that she and her brother, a private investigator, would attend the hearing on behalf of Molly.
On March 5th, 2021, Reis responded with an overview of the hearing process and stated that in Molly’s absence she would present the information on her behalf. Reis, however, did not explain how she obtained the police report and did not provide Diana with a date for the hearing or acknowledge her intention to attend the hearing.
Furthermore, although Reis knew that Molly had a protective order against Stephens in place, she also failed to advise Diana of the option to attend the hearing virtually, which is provided for in the CCSU Handbook.
While CSCU policy specifically states that the victim has the right to actively participate in the hearing process, Reis never provided Molly or her mother with a hearing date, according to Diana, despite three separate email requests for the information.
Diana did not hear from Reis again until six days later. The email informed the family the case was closed and no details could be provided.
In accordance with CSCU guidelines, both the victim and accused student are entitled to be provided with a written notice of the decision of the hearing body within one business day following the conclusion of the hearing. The notice includes the name of the accused student, the violation committed, if any, and any sanction imposed upon the accused student.
Molly never received any notice of the outcome of the hearing, or of any disciplinary actions taken.
Following a 2018 report by CCSU’s student-run newspaper, the Recorder, that accused a theater department professor of sexual misconduct, the university hired Hartford law firm, Shipman and Goodwin, to investigate the allegations. Not only did the investigation find evidence that the professor in question did engage in sexual misconduct with students, but it also found that CCSU did not properly investigate or effectively address student complaints of misconduct.
CCSU President Zulma Toro called the failures by administrators to protect their students “disturbing” and that the findings of the Shipman and Goodwin investigation identified “vital changes” that would need to be made to ensure that the mistakes and inactions would never be repeated at the university.
She additionally stated that CCSU “will not tolerate sexual misconduct or abusive behavior of any kind” and that the university has a “zero-tolerance policy” on such behaviors.
In response to the findings, President Toro retooled the Office of Equity and Inclusion, created two new investigator positions and did away with policies that required victims to report abuse within 90 days of the incident and required that reports of sexual misconduct be destroyed after five years. According to CCSU policy, intimate partner violence, that is, violence that occurs between current or former spouses or dating partners, falls under the umbrella of sexual misconduct.
The handling of Molly’s case, however, has left her and her family wondering if, the lessons and policy changes that came from the theater department scandal brought about meaningful change.
After being shut out of the hearing and disciplinary proceedings, Molly and Diana began looking for answers. First, Diana contacted Reis seeking the results promised to them under CSCU policy. In Reis’ last email to Diana on March 11th, 2021, when she told her the case had been closed, Reis said that the results were protected by FERPA and would not be released.
Diana pointed to CCSU’s Student Handbook which states that the victim is entitled to the results of the hearing. Reis did not respond to any of Diana’s emails. After hitting a wall with Reis, Diana and Molly began to take the issue further up the chain of command. They then contacted CCSU Vice President of Student Affairs John Tully, President Toro, and Board of Regents President Angelo Simoni Jr.
Each of them refused to disclose any information on the case citing FERPA protection as the reason and, despite the university violating a number of their own policies, claimed that CCSU had done no wrong.
With no response from Reis, Diana contacted the university’s Title IX Officer, Pamela Whitley. Despite CCSU’s Student Handbook stating that, in addition to being investigated by OSRR, Molly’s complaint against Stephens would be reviewed by the university’s Title IX coordinator, Whitley was unaware of the investigation, according to Diana.
Whitley said she would talk to Reis and get back to her. Whitley never did call back, though. Whitley is no longer an employee of CCSU and could not be reached for comment.
Diana then reached out to the FERPA helpdesk. According to Diana, the FERPA representative indicated that CCSU was required to disclose the results of the hearing and that it is not uncommon for colleges and universities to claim FERPA protection on records of sexual misconduct and withhold that information from the victim.
Indeed, instances of colleges and universities abusing FERPA to conceal reprehensible behavior from public view are well-documented. Recently, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission decided that schools cannot withhold entire staff misconduct records on FERPA grounds and that they must release the documents but redact the private information.
Additionally, guidance from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) states that colleges and universities can disclose the final results of any disciplinary proceeding to the victim of a violent or sexual offense.
Despite the readily available information to the contrary, CCSU Vice President of Student Affairs Tully would neither confirm nor deny that a hearing took place and told Diana in an email that the university could not provide her with any of the information she was seeking without Stephens’ consent.
“After a careful review of the relevant laws and policies,” Tully said, “we are unable to provide the requested information without the written consent of the student involved in the process.”
Later, Simoni would confirm a hearing did take place and that “the matter was adjudicated”.
As a last-ditch effort, in February 2022, Diana filed a whistleblower complaint with the Connecticut State Auditors of Public Accounts (APA) that shared her “knowledge of corruption, unethical practices, violation of state laws or regulations, mismanagement, abuse of authority, and danger to the public safety by Central Connecticut State University.”
After an initial review by the APA, the case was then forwarded to the attorney general’s office in accordance with state law. But, as with all of her previous efforts, Diana’s search for help met another dead end in October 2022. The attorney reviewing the case, Greg O’Connell, told her that the attorney general’s office would not be pursuing the case.
“He said the investigation will go no further because the attorney general’s office can’t tell colleges what to do,” Diana said. “And I was about to say, well then, like, what the hell good are you? Who can you tell what to do if you’re the attorney general’s office for the state of Connecticut?”
In seeking transparency and accountability from CCSU and the administrators who had shrouded the proceedings in secrecy, Diana was only met with more opacity. When she asked O’Connell if her complaint lacked evidence of facts, he would only say that any consideration the attorney general’s office gave to the case was “discretionary, confidential and exempt from disclosure,” according to Diana.
When CII reached out to Reis, Tully, Pincince and President Toro requesting interviews for this story, CII received a response from CCSU spokesperson Janice Palmer instead:
“CCSU does not comment on, nor confirm, any matter related to an alleged case of intimate partner violence involving a named student,” Palmer said.
After more than a year of allegedly being punched, hit and having everyday items like chairs, remote controls and gaming consoles turned into projectiles against her, the assault on May 16, 2020, was a breaking point for Molly.
That night was the first time she told her mother of the violence she had suffered at the hands of Stephens. And while Molly had declined to get the police involved after other instances of abuse, she pressed charges hoping the consequences he faced would be severe enough that Stephens would understand that his behavior was not acceptable.
However, she was let down in that respect, too.
In exchange for completing the Family Violence Education Program, a course consisting of 90-minute classes held once a week for nine weeks, Stephens would have his charges dropped. Despite Molly’s protest that the program was not appropriate for Stephens, and at the very least he should be required to complete the more intensive 26-session EXPLORE program, the judge signed off on the deal. Stephens confirmed in a phone call with CII that charges were dismissed in exchange for completing the Family Violence Education Program. He declined to comment further.
While Stephens’ criminal record is clean, the marks he left on Molly won’t wash off as easily. In a statement to the judge presiding over the case, Molly said that as a result of the abuse she suffers from depression, anxiety, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder. Due to her condition, she said that some days she is unable to function or go to work and that the lost wages and therapy expenses have been financially burdensome.
At the end of her letter, Molly told the judge that she was “concerned that Peyton does not understand the significant impact that his actions have had on my life,” and that she was “deeply concerned that he will continue his harmful abuse with other women.”
According to the whistleblower complaint, months after the CCSU investigation had been closed, Molly was separately approached by two other women who claimed to have been abused by Stephens.
Additionally, according to the complaint, both women said they knew of two other women who had allegedly been assaulted by Stephens and tried to file reports with CCSU but were apparently told that the statute of limitations to report the assaults had passed and closed the cases.