COMMENTARY BY: CAREY HANLIN
Three days ago, my good friend Landen Gambill received an email from the UNC-Chapel Hill Honor Court informing her that she had been charged with “disruptive or intimidating behavior” toward the student who raped her.
When Landen first told me this past fall about her sexual assault, she talked about the psychological impact not just of the abuse itself, but also of the mistreatment she faced from the UNC administration. But never once did she tell me any extensive details about her abuser.
For Landen, this saga hasn’t been about revenge. It was never about making him pay for hurting her emotionally or physically, and it was never about destroying his reputation or ruining his life. It was just about justice, and more importantly about prevention. It was and is about making sure other young women don’t have to face the trauma that Landen Gambill, Andrea Pino, and countless other young women around Chapel Hill and around the nation have been forced to experience.
But when Landen initially pressed charges against her abuser with the UNC Honor Court, she was met with resistance and hostility. And she found that she wasn’t the only one.
Last month, former UNC assistant dean of students Melinda Manning, along with Landen, Andrea Pino, and others, filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that certain university officials pressured Manning into underreporting cases of sexual violence. The complaint was made on behalf of more than 60 sexual assault survivors who experienced the same stifling hostility that Landen encountered earlier this year.
Since the complaint was filed, UNC has garnered negative attention both locally and nationally, with the Huffington Post, News & Observer, Salon, and Jezebel all covering the progress of the case since its inception. Landen, Andrea Pino, and Melinda Manning have found themselves at the center of it all. Now, Landen feels that UNC administrators are retaliating against her, opting to attempt to silence her instead of addressing the issues filed in the complaint. Because of her activism and advocacy to bring change to UNC, because of her willingness and bravery to say that she was raped and that the university didn’t help her, Landen now faces the possibility of expulsion.
As much as we like to hold UNC to some mythical standard of utopian progressiveness, we cannot forget that rape does happen here. In fact, it isn’t even uncommon. For our own administrators to work actively against sexual assault survivors and hide their cases away as if to pretend that nothing happened is unacceptable. The use of the threat of suspension or even expulsion against Landen for being vocal about her rape is intolerable and horrifying.
UNC has the potential at this point to stand up for sexual assault survivors. It has the potential to be a beacon of change for our nation – to be the example that justice can prevail and that survivors will not be met with even further victimization. By telling Landen Gambill that she could face expulsion for saying that she was raped, by denying the allegations that administrators ignored the best interests of sexual assault survivors, and by implying that it is not acceptable to challenge the school system on its inability to help survivors of sexual assault, UNC fails to be a beacon. The great “light on the hill” remains dark.
This is my own personal plea to stand with Landen Gambill and every other survivor of sexual assault not just at UNC but around the nation and around the world – to recognize that sexual violence is very real, and that by silencing survivors, we are hindering social progress and actively allowing more pain.
Note that we must always keep in mind that we live in the land of “innocent until proven guilty.” Obviously, if someone in Landen’s place had gone around pasting the name of her assailant all over the halls of UNC, smearing his image and slandering his name before he was found guilty of anything, we would be obligated to protect the rights of the assailant. And in this case too, we are obligated to protect the rights of both parties. But Landen does not repeat the name of her assailant in the public forum, and has barely even focused on him; rather she has focused on her mistreatment at the hands of particular UNC administrators. The point of this article is not to say that Landen’s assailant needs to be punished immediately and every person ever charged with sexual assault should suffer a terrible fate; it’s to say that the UNC administration has severely mishandled this case and many others, at the expense of survivors like Landen.
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