Federal government to investigate UNC-Chapel Hill over sexual assault issue

jstancill@newsobserver.comMarch 7, 2013 

— The U.S. Department of Education will investigate a complaint by several women who say UNC-Chapel Hill improperly handled sexual-assault cases on campus, violating the rights of victims.

University spokeswoman Karen Moon said Wednesday that the university would “respond appropriately to their requests and cooperate fully.”

In a letter to Chancellor Holden Thorp dated March 1, Robin Murphy, a team leader on the Washington Office for Civil Rights, wrote that the office would open an investigation into the women’s complaint. She added that the office also found that there were individual allegations of disability discrimination. Those would be handled separately, she wrote.

“Please note that opening the allegation for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to the merits of the complaint,” Murphy wrote. “During the investigation, OCR is a neutral fact-finder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from the complainant, the recipient, and other sources, as appropriate.”

The complainants allege that the university failed to appropriately respond to concerns of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and further failed to conduct adequate and impartial investigations or provide proper grievance procedures for such complaints, the letter said. They also accuse the university of failing to provide appropriate training for members of hearing committees or residential life staff.

The letter asks for UNC-CH to send documents about its policies, procedures, training and a spreadsheet containing all student sexual-assault complaints, their outcomes and any subsequent grievance complaints.

In January, three students, a former student and a former assistant dean of students filed the complaint with the federal government, saying the university created a hostile climate for sexual-assault victims, thereby interfering with their education and violating the federal Title IX anti-discrimination law.

Details of the complaint were reported in the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, but the women who signed on to the complaint have declined to provide a copy of it to The News & Observer.

University officials have said that they had not seen the complaint but that they take the issue of sexual assault seriously. The university brought in Gina Smith, a nationally known consultant on sexual-misconduct cases, to hold a campus conversation on the issue. She met with students in Chapel Hill on Wednesday and will continue her work later this week.

The women’s allegations were explosive and have led to several rallies on campus, including one Friday.

One of the women who complained, Landen Gambill, said she was the victim of retaliation when she was charged with an honor code violation for intimidating an ex-boyfriend she had accused of rape. The ex-boyfriend was found not guilty last year of sexual misconduct in a university hearing. Gambill has not identified him by name, but his attorney said the UNC-CH student suffered when Gambill repeatedly referred to him as a rapist.

The university denied Gambill’s claims of retaliation because the charges were brought in the student-run honor court.

In a statement Friday, Thorp said: “The accusation that the University has retaliated against a student for filing a complaint is totally and completely false. Administrators have no authority over how charges are made in individual Honor Court cases.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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