UNC-Chapel Hill leaders deny under-reporting sex offenses

Denying a former administrator’s claim, officials say they take rape seriously

jstancill@newsobserver.comJanuary 24, 2013 

  • How does UNC-Chapel Hill handle sexual assault cases? In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a letter to colleges and universities, telling them of the requirement under Title IX to prevent sexual harassment. The letter – viewed by many as a crackdown – advised colleges of their responsibility to report, investigate and deal swiftly with incidents of sexual violence so that victims would not be subjected to a hostile learning environment. The directive also stipulated that the burden of proof in order for universities to punish students would be lower than for criminal convictions. The letter prompted campuses across the country to revamp their processes and procedures for adjudicating sexual assault allegations. At UNC-Chapel Hill, it led to removal of such authority from the student-run honor court, in which students had sat in judgment of other students in sexual assault cases. The new policy at UNC-CH calls for review by trained staff – a student complaint coordinator and an investigator in the equal opportunity/Americans with Disabilities Act office. Cases ultimately can go before the university’s dean of students for an informal resolution or, for a formal triallike process, before a grievance committee made up of faculty, staff and students. Appeals go to the chancellor, then to the Board of Trustees and finally to the UNC system’s Board of Governors.

— UNC-Chapel Hill leaders say they take the issue of sexual assault seriously, and Thursday the university’s top lawyer strongly denied a claim by a former administrator that the university deliberately under-reported sex offenses in 2010.

Leslie Strohm, vice chancellor and general counsel, forcefully responded to the claim at a meeting of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. The allegations that her office manipulated sexual assault reports “are false, they are untrue and they are just plain wrong,” Strohm said.

Beyond that, university leaders said they could not discuss a federal complaint last week by three students, a former student and a former assistant dean who claim the university violated sexual assault victims’ rights and broke the law. The university has not received a copy of the complaint, the details of which have only been published in the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, is under review by federal officials. They could take weeks to decide whether to launch an investigation.

But the complaint already has ignited an emotional response on campus, where some faculty have written angry letters calling for action against accused administrators. A group called SAFER Carolina had drawn 1,300 signatures by Thursday on an online petition asking leaders to fight “the culture of sexual violence and hostility at UNC.” And one explosive allegation in the federal complaint has become a headline on blogs: “Rape is like a football game,” a comment attributed to an unidentified UNC-CH administrator, as reported by the Daily Tar Heel.

‘A daunting responsibility’

On Thursday, UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp announced plans to retain a national expert on sexual misconduct on college campuses. Gina Smith, a Philadelphia-based consultant and former prosecutor, is expected to come to Chapel Hill to review the university’s policies and participate in a broad dialogue about how to deal with sexual violence.

Smith recently worked with Amherst College, which has dealt with scathing allegations from a student who wrote about poor treatment by the college after she was sexually assaulted. Another student there committed suicide after a sexual assault, and his suicide letter, published on the Internet, blamed the college in part, calling Amherst’s treatment of him “an emotionless hand-washing.”

Thorp said he had a weekend conversation with Amherst President Biddy Martin, who has been applauded for her response to problems there.

“It is a daunting responsibility to get this right,” Thorp said. “It’s as challenging as anything that we have to do. It involves sensitive and difficult issues, and it involves trying to treat people fairly within that environment.”

Thorp and trustees Chairman Wade Hargrove urged people to reserve final judgment on the complaint until all the facts are in.

Strohm rebutted claims by Melinda Manning, a former assistant dean of students who joined the federal complaint. Manning, according to the Daily Tar Heel, alleged in the complaint that the university’s sex offense statistics were altered in 2010 after an administrator suggested that they were too high.

Strohm presented trustees with an internal email dated Sept. 13, 2011, in which Manning presented 2010 statistics she had gathered on sexual assault cases, which totaled 16.

Strohm also showed the university’s official report on sexual assault cases for that year, which totaled 23 – seven more than Manning had reported.

“We reported 43 percent more sex offenses than Melinda Manning provided to us,” Strohm said. “So the facts are these: the office of university counsel reported every single sex offense that Melinda Manning sent to us, plus seven additional sex offenses that we gathered through our outreach to other offices like campus police and Chapel Hill police.”

Efforts to reach Manning on Thursday were unsuccessful. She resigned in December.

Andrea Pino, one of the students who filed the complaint, said bringing in an outside consultant would not solve the pervasive problem of sexual violence at UNC-CH or any other campus. It must be a community discussion with students at the center, she said.

“Regardless of what is happening right now we’re not at the table,” she said. “We’re not being taken into account.”

Changes in policies

The university has recently changed its policies and systems to conform with federal guidelines about the handling of sexual violence by campuses across the United States. Thorp said it is important to remember that some of the reported allegations in the complaint occurred before the recent overhaul of UNC-CH’s policies.

“We have been in a fluid and changing environment with regard to how we do this,” he said.

Whether at UNC-CH or any other campus, the response has to be about more than compliance, Pino said. “It’s not being addressed as a collective national epidemic.”

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp said the university has worked for a year to rewrite procedures, recruit new staff and create a department to handle issues of student violence.

“I’ve spent more than 20 years on this campus working on these and other issues,” Crisp said. “I have been, and continue to be, absolutely dedicated to helping create and maintain an environment worthy of this place. My actions, I believe, have always been consistent with that dedication.”

Several trustees praised Crisp and Strohm for their efforts. The board met for more than two hours behind closed doors.

Hargrove said the university is taking the issue “quite seriously.”

“We’re trying to get our arms around the facts,” Hargrove said, “and we will deal with it in a responsible and timely manner.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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