Federal investigators to probe handling of UNC assault cases

Mar. 06, 2013 @ 10:07 PM

The U.S. Department of Education has decided to investigate claims made by five women who charge that UNC routinely mishandled sexual assault cases.

The department’s Office of Civil Rights notified the women in a letter dated March 1 that their claims proved worthy of further investigation.

“Based on the information you provided in your complaint and in extensive supplemental documentation, we are opening your allegation for investigation,” wrote Robin C. Murphy, an official with the department, in the letter.

Murphy said, however, that the opening of the allegation for investigation does not mean the office has made a decision about the merits of the women’s complaint.

The women allege that the university failed to:

- Appropriately respond to concerns of sexual harassment, including sexual assault/sexual violence. 

- Provide appropriate grievance procedures regarding sexual harassment, including sexual assault/ sexual violence.

- Provide adequate and impartial investigations of sexual harassment, including sexual assault/sexual violence.

- Provide appropriate training, including for hearing committee members and residential life staff, regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault/sexual violence.

Annie Clark, a UNC graduate and one of the five women named in the complaint, said Wednesday that she was grateful the Office of Civil Rights chose to investigate.

“I would have been shocked had they chosen not to after reviewing our complaint,” Clark said. “But I am surprised they responded so quickly, and am thankful.”

Clark, a victim of sexual assault in 2007 while a student at UNC, said the women want to change the culture at UNC and campuses across the nation.

“This is about a larger picture,” Clark said. “This is something that has happened at every campus in the country, and when it does happen, survivors are often being treated inappropriately and illegally.”

Tim Longest, an organizer for Survivors and Allies for Empowerment and Reform (SAFER), a group formed to educate the public about gender-based violence, said he can’t celebrate the fact that UNC is under investigation, but is excited the truth will finally come out.

“The OCR’s investigation will bring to light the claims and I believe help substantiate them,” said the senior, who has been one of the university’s few male students to speak out publicly on this issue.

Clark, along with current students Landen Gambill, Andrea Pino, one unnamed student and former assistant dean of students Melinda Manning, filed the complaint in January.  

They allege the university violated the rights of sexual assault victims and created a hostile environment for students reporting sexual assault.

Manning also has accused university officials of pressuring her into lowering the number of reported offenses and claims there were three fewer cases in the Annual Campus Security Report than she originally submitted.

UNC officials vigorously denied the charge during a Board of Trustees meeting in January. Officials contend that the report, in fact, contained more incidents of sexual violence than Manning had submitted.

Last week, more than 250 students rallied outside the university’s administration building in support of Gambill, who faces the possibility of expulsion for speaking out about allegedly being raped by an ex-boyfriend, a fellow student who has not been named by Gambill.

An attorney for the ex-boyfriend contends that Gambill has made life difficult for his client, who was found not guilty of sexual misconduct in a 5-0 vote by a university hearing board that included one administrator, two faculty members and two students.

Meanwhile, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp has hired Gina Smith, a nationally known consultant and expert on sexual assault, to review UNC’s reporting policy to make sure the university is using best policies and procedures.

SAFER has started a petition urging Thorp and the UNC Board of Trustees to take a stand against a culture of sexual violence and hostility at UNC. That petition has gained more than 5,000 supporters.