BY: GRACE TATTER
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced today that they are investigating the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s handling of sexual assault cases.
The Department isn’t the only one concerned; many students and community members are too.
The complaint filed in February against Landen Gambill by her ex-boyfriend has pulled UNC’s sexual assault policies into the spotlight for the second time this year.
In January, Gambill, along with other students and a former UNC administrator, filed a case against the University with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights claiming that the University had violated federal law in its handling of sexual assault cases.
UNC’s sexual assault policy began to undergo changes months before the Gambill case began or the complaint stemming from it was filed.
Last Thursday, junior Anna Sturkey and senior Joe Holthaus helped clarify the changes at an Honor System Awareness Forum. (Sturkey was also Campus BluePrint’s design editor until last month.)
Although Holthaus and Sturkey are members of the Honor System, they spoke about sexual assault as HAVEN facilitators. HAVEN is a campuswide effort to help survivors of interpersonal violence like sexual assault, abusive relationships, and stalking.
Both Holthaus and Sturkey are part of a group of faculty members, students, and administrators working with legal consultant Gina Smith to improve UNC’s sexual assault policy.
Holthaus and Sturkey said that conversations with Smith have begun to satisfy longstanding concerns about how sexual assault is handled at UNC. Those concerns predate even the Dear Colleague letter, Sturkey said.
But there’s still progress to be made.
“The policy is compliant [with federal standards], but in our opinion, far from sufficient,” Holthaus said.
Holthaus and Sturkey said the definition of consent should be better defined in the new policy, so it’s clear that consent in a relationship is ongoing, and that previous consent to sex is not binding.
They also said the policy needs a more rigidly defined bill of student rights, and a more defined list of confidential sources survivors of sexual violence can go to.
“The conversation is not just about the policy itself and legal language, but how it’s been administered, how we make sure we [are treating] these cases correctly moving forward, and how it translates to the culture campuswide,” Holthaus said.
Sturkey added, “It’s definitely been getting better, but we can still get to a much better place.”
Here’s a quick run-down of sexual assault policy at UNC:
April 4, 2011: Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights sends all universities a letter, known as the “Dear Colleague Letter,” which stipulates how sexual violence cases should be adjudicated.
Some of the most impactful changes outlined by the Office of Civil Rights are a reduction in the burden of proof to “preponderance of evidence” (meaning it is more likely than not that the instance of sexual violence occurred), stricter training requirements for those deciding sexual assault cases, and a 60-day limit on cases. The letter also stipulates that universities hire a student complaint coordinator. The University began incorporating the federal stipulations into university policy during the Fall 2011 semester.
January 2012: UNC begins interim sexual assault procedure. The interim procedure is compliant with the new federal standards. Rather than have a hearing panel of five students, sexual assault cases are now heard in front of two students, two faculty members, and one administrative chair. However, sexual assault hearings are still presented to a hearings board that is part of the student-run Honors System (though separate from the Honor Court).
February 2012: Landen Gambill charges her ex-boyfriend with sexual misconduct. He is immediately suspended and tried under the interim system. The University Hearings Board found him not guilty of sexual misconduct but guilty of verbal harassment. Under the interim policy, both Gambill and the accused have the right to an appeal, to request review by the Chancellor, or a new hearing (in the event of new evidence).
Aug. 1, 2012: The new sexual assault policy goes into effect. Sexual assault causes are now completely removed from the Honor System, going instead before a panel comprised of students, faculty and staff. Students in hearing panels are part of a Student Grievance Committee, appointed by the Student Body President, and overseen by a deputy Title IX student complaints coordinator, a position temporarily filled by Associate Dean of Students Desiree Rieckenberg.
Jan. 13, 2013: Gambill, along with three other former and current UNC students and Melissa Manning, UNC’s former assistant dean of students, file a complaint against the University with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. The complaint alleges the University violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the Clery Act (which requires the university to report all crimes occurring on or near campus as a condition of its federal funding) and the Federal Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights through its mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus.
Jan. 28, 2013: The University responds to the complaint, and announces the hiring of attorney Gina Smith. Smith will serve as a consultant on the overhaul of sexual assault policy. She played a similar role at Amherst University following that university’s own sexual assault controversy this fall.
Feb. 5, 2013: UNC announces that they have hired a permanent Title IX student complaints coordinator, Ew Quimbaya-Winship.
Feb. 19, 2013: U.S. Congress passes an extension of the Violence Against Women Act, which includes further protections against sexual violence on college campuses. The act requires instances of sexual violence to reported in annual crime reports, and for colleges to have more preventative educational programs.
Feb. 22, 2013: Gambill is charged with a violation of the Honor Code. The complaint was brought by her ex-boyfriend who claims Gambill has engaged in disruptive or intimidating behavior against him.
March 11, 2013: Quimbaya-Winship will officially take office at UNC, as students’ initial contact after instances of sexual violence.