UNC trustees hear from expert on sexual assault issues

Mar. 28, 2013 @ 04:29 PM

Gina Smith, a nationally recognized expert on sexual assault issues, told the UNC Board of Trustees on Thursday that the campus has been actively engaged in a process that will ultimately lead to better policies and procedures for handling sexual assaults.

UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp hired Smith in the wake of serious allegations from students and a former dean that the university mishandled allegations of sexual assault to meet with students, staff and faculty to engage them in conversations about the problem and to hear their concern.

“She will be making recommendations to me that I will be implementing over the next couple of weeks,” Thorp said.

Smith said the university community has come early and stayed late to meetings held to hear concerns and develop possible solutions to help the system better serve victims of sexual assault.

 “Your chancellor has engaged,” Smith said. “Students have engaged. Your staff and faculty have engaged at every level, at every turn, at every opportunity.”

Smith said she is excited about the involvement of young men in the process.

“Over the course of my career I’ve seen a shift in this,” Smith said. “I see young men actively engaged, articulate and knowledgeable about these issues. They are our next leaders with the young women that they educate themselves with.”    

While UNC is mostly compliant with provisions of Title IX, Smith said they system needs substantial tweaks.

She said the campus needs to focus on the climate on campus, policy, training and implementation of best policies and procedures.

Smith said universities too often write policy from the perspective of the people who implement them.

She said that needs to change.

“We need to write the policy from the other end of the telescope, from the lens of the end users,” Smith said.

She said the university also needs to look at its policies in terms of clarity of language and the style in which they are presented.

Smith said campus-wide training about sexual assault is critical and that the university must ensure that it is adequately addressing the needs of students who have been assaulted.

“If we are not tending to the individuals in these cases in the way that we know they should be tended to after an event like this, we lose an opportunity,” Smith said. “We lose an opportunity to have an ally to say the system supported me rather than the system hurt me.”

Sexual assaults at UNC have gained national and international attention since three students, a former student and former dean of students Melinda Manning filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education alleging the university mishandled sexual assault complaints.

One student, Landen Gambill, has also filed a separate complaint alleging the university retaliated against her for speaking out about sex assaults at UNC.

Gambill was charged with an Honor Code violation after an ex-boyfriend, who she accused of rape, claimed Gambill has created an intimidating environment for him on campus by claiming she was raped.

The ex-boyfriend, who Gambill has not named publicly, was cleared by a university hearing panel of sexual assault charges, but found guilty of harassing Gambill.

Thorp suspended an Honor Court hearing for Gambill to allow the federal claims to be investigated by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

The Education Department’s Clery Act Division is also conducting a program review to evaluate how the campus has complied with federal law.
The Clery Act requires colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their campuses.
Manning has charged that university officials pressured her into lowering the number of reported offenses at UNC.
She has said 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 submitted to include in the report.