Students, university officials work to change reputation of Celeron Path

In this photo, Celeron Path is seen in the woods near UConn's Storrs campus. UConn students have colloquially referred to the path, a shortcut between campus and Celeron Apartments, as “The Rape Trail” for decades. (Ashley Maher/The Daily Campus)

A group of University of Connecticut students are trying to change the vernacular surrounding the Celeron Path.

UConn students have colloquially referred to the path, a shortcut between campus and Celeron Apartments, as “The Rape Trail” for decades. According to Stephanie Sponzo, a fourth-semester political science and economics double major and the leader of the Undergraduate Student Government’s (USG) student development subcommittee on the Celeron Path, there’s a lot in a name.

“Language has power, more power than people are willing to admit,” Sponzo said. “Even casually calling something ‘The Rape Trail’ first of all suggests that that’s a normal occurrence there, which it’s not. Second of all it implies that, even if that were a normal occurrence, because that’s the reputation that the path has, that no one should be alarmed that it happens there. Rape should always be something people should be alarmed to hear about. Unfortunately, that’s not the case currently, but I would like to live in a world where it’s not a common thing to hear of a woman being sexually assaulted.”

UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz made it clear the university’s aversion to the nickname.

“We’re committed to campuses that are free from all forms of sexual violence and harassment, and having such an offensive nickname for any location on our campus is unacceptable,” Reitz wrote in an email. “It unnecessarily causes fear and alarm, and makes light of this serious crime and the experiences of sexual violence survivors.”

The problem of the path’s name – a longstanding one for the university – was identified last year as a priority for the student government by current USG President Rachel Conboy. Sponzo immediately took on the project, originally spearheading it with fellow senator George Wang. This year, Sponzo is leading the effort with the help of her subcommittee, which includes students and USG members Julia Kennedy, Christian Burr, Vanessa Villar and Gabriella Fazzina. Irma Valverde, the current chair of USG’s Student Development Committee, is also overseeing the undertaking.

Their plan is a two-pronged approach. First, the physical remodeling of the path – the beautification aspect. This includes plants, landscaping, lights, blue lights, even community spaces like gazeboes, benches and bike racks. The subcommittee is also vying for signage specifically naming the path, although whether it will be officially called “the Celeron Path” or “the Celeron Walk” or the original “the Celeron Trail,” has yet to be decided. The subcommittee attempting to bring about the path’s makeover is relying on the logic that if the path is cleaned up its reputation will be as well. 

The second and more complex part of the project is to dismantle the dialogue surrounding the path. As Sponzo put it: “Basically just not calling it ‘The Rape Trail.’”

“I joined USG because I wanted to be a voice for women on campus and sexual assault hits home for a lot of women, so I thought it would be a good first project for me,” Sponzo said. 

While Sponzo said she admits that the project has taken a long time, this is, in part, due to the bureaucracy of USG as well as that of UConn’s administration. For example, there is no money specifically allotted to the operation in USG’s budget because of their budget deadline. Still, Sponzo is certain the money will be there when the time comes.

“Comptroller (Parth) Rana said we could either take it out of our execs (executive) budget or our miscellaneous portion, so we’re going to move some money around, but yeah, it’s going be funded, partially by USG,” Sponzo said.

The subcommittee is also fundraising for the beautification of the path, looking for donations from local businesses, student groups, alumni and interested individuals. Money from donations has already been promised by Pride’s Corner Farm and Canterbury Tree Farm.

The plan is to pool donations to go towards buying plants, shrubbery, trees and other items mentioned earlier. Once UConn’s Landscape Services gives the subcommittee cost estimates, their next move is to distribute a list that says what specific amounts of money will buy to the alumni association, Tier IIs and small businesses. If anyone wishes to donate, Sponzo said to contact her at stephanie.sponzo@uconn.edu.

Reitz said it’s possible UConn would contribute to the beautification project as well.

“We’d assess based on costs, but in general, we’ve been partners with other groups in such efforts that are mutually beneficial,” Reitz said.

The subcommittee hopes to break ground this spring.

UConn has already begun reworking the path. Sponzo credited university staff with cutting back a lot of the brush, installing new lights that are supposed to imitate daylight and putting in trashcans to try and eliminate waste.

The 2013 president’s Task Force on Civility and Campus Culture suggested “a student-led drive to eradicate the use of the alarming and unfounded nickname occasionally used to describe the walkway between campus and the Celeron apartment complex.”

While the administration has been aware of the name, it was not until the high-profile Title IX allegations of sexual assault and administrative incompetence that concrete steps were taken to combat the name.

For her part, Sponzo still remembers when she first heard the name.

“I’ve been coming here (UConn) since I was a junior in high school, because I’ve had friends that live here,” Sponzo said. “I had heard about the rape trail, so feminist junior Steph in high school was outraged at the thought of a path being called ‘The Rape Trail.’”

Sponzo said that her friend told her the trail gained its unfortunate moniker because it was so sketchy and she thought a girl got raped there.

According to Sponzo and police statistics, the name isn’t only offensive, it’s also not based in fact. There has been one reported sexual assault on the path since it was built in 1992. UConn police are also stepping up their presence on the path, with 145 patrol checks reported in 2014.

The subcommittee is also aiming to have a thicker wall built along the path so students don’t have to see the dump, to have community service events on the path and to have the beginning of five kilometer runs on the path. In addition, the path is being incorporated into UConn’s developing master plan as a part of the fitness loop. Yet, Sponzo recognizes, there’s more to be done.

“On the non-physical side is incorporating this into orientation and kind of relying on student turnover, because a lot of the students here have heard it and decide to call it that, it’s very difficult to change that,” Sponzo said. “You can’t mandate that people speak a certain way, so we’re really just trying to nudge the movement in the right direction, take away any reason that people could possibly have to use that language, and kind of motivate them to use more positive language, but you know, it has to be their idea. The second that you make something taboo, it’s all of a sudden very cool to call it that, which is why I think people use that term.”

History

The one reported sexual assault that took place on the trail was highly-publicized. In a 2008 op-ed for The Daily Campus, Melissa Bruen, the editor of the newspaper at the time, detailed her assault on The Celeron Trail, when two separate men attacked her and she was forced to fight back.

“Another man, around 6’1,’’ approached me and said, 'You think that was an assault?' and pulled down my tube top, and grabbed my breasts. More men started to cheer. It didn’t matter to the drunken mob that my breasts were being shown or fondled against my will,” Bruen wrote at the time.

“The Rape Trail” had never been truer to its name – at this point, it seemed self-evident. A 2008 op-ed by Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, reacted to the event and its aftermath.

“For is it really ‘blaming the victim’ to note that there will always be predators and that to get drunk and hang out with thousands of other drunks looking to lose their inhibitions is to ask for trouble?” Powell asked in the column. “If calling something the ‘rape trail’ for the risks taken by those who traverse it cannot wise people up, maybe nothing will. Maybe youth has to be the school of hard knocks.”

Statements like these are one of the many reasons why Sponzo and her subcommittee hope to change, or rather, reaffirm, the path’s name.

“When we normalize language like that (rape), it’s very common for there to be victim-blaming in that situation,” Sponzo said. “So if a girl is walking back from Celeron to her dorm on campus, and she were to be sexually assaulted on ‘The Rape Trail,’ you know, likely the dialogue surrounding that event would be ‘Oh, what did she expect? She was on ‘The Rape Trail,’ if you’re gonna be a woman walking on the rape trail, what do you think is gonna happen?’ which completely takes any of the blame off of the perpetrator, which is obviously unacceptable, because stopping sexual assault starts with teaching men not to sexually assault women, or vice versa.”

Students have posted on Instagram and Twitter acknowledging the path as “The Rape Trail.” At a 2013 concert, the rapper Timeflies referenced “The Rape Trail” to cheers from the crowd. There is even an online Urban Dictionary entry defining the term and specifying it to UConn.

The origins of the nickname are unknown. A Hartford Courant article from 2000 said that, even though to that point no rapes had been reported on the trail, “It probably got its name because it’s dark and it’s scary,” according to a student quoted in the article. Women’s Studies professor Joanne Land-Kazlauskas said at the time: ``Everyone was aware of it, everyone knew it existed, but no one knew why or the folklore behind how it was named.”

Current UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz echoed these sentiments, saying that it was a mystery how the name came about.

“Although I don’t know the roots of the nickname, it apparently was in casual use for a while before people started referencing it openly with that name,” Reitz said. “UConn has always found the name to be offensive and irresponsible, and it became clear in recent years that students felt the same.”

No matter the roots of the nickname, over two decades after its creation, The Celeron Trail is finally on a path towards its real name.


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email atsten.spinella@uconn.edu.