Ensuring campus safety

Oct. 05, 2013 @ 09:34 AM

Last spring, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was reeling from assertions that it was lax in its handling of sexual assaults. The Office of Civil Rights of the U. S. Department of Education undertook an investigation after three students, a former student and a former assistant dean filed a complaint that the university violated the rights of victims of sexual assault and created an environment hostile to those who reported it.

UNC system President Tom Ross responded to those assertions and a scandal over sexual-assault handling at Elizabeth City State University by naming a committee to study how UNC campuses handle sexual assault and other safety issues.

This past week, that committee got down to work, and Ross was clear about what he expects from the group chaired by N. C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson and A&T Chancellor Harold Martin.

“This university aspires to be a leader among higher education institutions in understanding and implementing the best methods and practices for responding to offenses against persons and assuring that campus law enforcement operations function in accordance with well-designed policies and procedures.”

Officials acknowledge that there is an inherent tension between increasing security on campus and the traditional openness that allows widespread, unfettered access to the university and its facilities.

Coincidentally, the day before the Woodson-Martin committee met, a panel discussion on the UNC campus underscored the fact that curbing sexual assault issue requires more than a legal and law enforcement strategy. It requires grappling with embedded societal attitudes.

“In referring to a recent assault case, panelist Rachel Seidman, associate director of UNC’s Southern Oral History Program, said progress in the legal system has a limited impact,” The Daily Tar Heel reported, then quoted Seidman:

“Legal changes have not done enough to stop the assaults. If anything, the case highlights the difficulty of effecting cultural and attitudinal change through political action.”

Michelle Robinson, a panelist and an American Studies professor at UNC, sounded a similar theme, according to the DTH report. Change, she said, can be difficult because the culture may view sexual assault as normal.

“We treat it as nature, as something that is semi-fixed,” she said.

If that attitude might lower inhibitions against sexual assault, other factors can lower them even further, as Martin observed at the committee meeting. “Alcohol and drugs change behavior, change attitudes and perspectives and in many ways contribute to some of the inappropriate and unfortunate behavior of our students,” Martin said.

Despite all those hurdles, Ross made clear the ultimate expectation, for the committee and for the university system.

“We must do everything feasible to promote a safe environment on our campuses and ensure that the rights of individuals are respected,” he said.

That is the appropriate goal, and we are pleased the university is taking seriously the need to improve performance and perception.