National expert answers questions about UNC-Chapel Hill and sexual assault

jstancill@newsobserver.comMarch 7, 2013 

Gina Maisto Smith

Gina Maisto Smith, a nationally recognized expert, was hired by UNC-Chapel Hill to facilitate a campus conversation surrounding the university’s handling of sexual misconduct cases.

Smith is a partner in the law firm of Pepper Hamilton in its Philadelphia office. She spent nearly two decades in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, where she prosecuted sex crimes, child abuse and other crimes. She now focuses on institutional responses to sexual misconduct, advising colleges and universities on policies and conducting training.

She is in Chapel Hill this week to meet with students, faculty and staff to discuss the complex issues around sexual violence. She recently performed a similar role at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Q: What is your role in helping the university deal with the issue of sexual assaults on campus?

I have a broad role. I was brought in by the university to engage the community in conversations around this issue for the purpose of allowing them to be heard. ... I’ve been meeting students, faculty and staff, incorporating their concerns and the issues from their perspective into any response as we move forward. That’s one aspect of it: community engagement. The second aspect of it is ongoing education around the issue. To the extent questions are asked in these community meetings, I’m starting to discuss some of the issues around Title IX (gender equity law), some of the questions around policy and procedure and the things that are of concern to people.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve heard at one of the meetings you’ve facilitated?

Wow, there are so many. I will say that the thing that surprises me the most and that has reared its head most frequently is the lack of understanding of what the current policies say. So I think that demonstrates to me the real need to have this conversation and the real need to put out some basic information about what the policy says and what it means. It reflected to me that the training and education that I know happens at orientation is not taking root.

Q: Does UNC-CH have a problem with its culture that makes it particularly susceptible to sexual violence and harassment?

I would say that issues that we see at UNC are not unique. The issues that we see at UNC are common to the college and university community. We see a constellation of factors that exist in the college and university community that exist almost nowhere else in society. You put together thousands of 18-to-21 year olds, you put them in close proximity to each other, doing what 18-to-21 year olds should be doing, and that is learning and exploring and growing in their peer groups. You expose them to access to drugs and alcohol and the party scene. And this is in an environment, where we have, as an institution, some oversight responsibilities through a complicated set of laws and regulations. So I don’t know of any other environment that puts together the constellation of what I believe to be a perfect storm for these issues. That doesn’t exist only at UNC; that exists in the context of the college and university environment everywhere.

Q: Should universities be adjudicating sexual assaults, which are serious crimes?

The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights contemplates that schools and universities are positioned to adjudicate these cases. I believe that that adjudication offers students another option other than going the criminal route. I think it’s important to be pointed out that the criminal option is always available. So while colleges and universities are offering additional options to students ... and services and support, the criminal option is always available.

Q: If people say that campus processes are inequitable in some way, wouldn’t it be better for rape victims to report to the police always?

That is always an option, and ... the individuals that do report these cases certainly always have the option to go forward. That information is shared with them at the outset. The university will support them in getting there. The university discusses with them the importance of preservation of evidence on these issues.

Q: The federal government seems to be taking a stronger stance on sexual violence and sexual harassment on college campuses. Now the U.S. Department of Education will investigate UNC-CH as it did Yale University last year. Are these complaints and investigations having an impact nationally?

I think it goes without saying that these cases are having an impact nationally because schools know that the (2011 federal guidelines) and the responsibilities in eliminating harassment, preventing its recurrence and addressing its effects, are such that schools are looking at how the Department of Education is enforcing those obligations. It is one of the factors that are causing schools to look closer at what they’re doing. Very clearly the Department of Education has called schools to action to review their policies and procedures and implement changes as needed. So in that process, any information that they can get from cases the Office for Civil Rights has taken on is good guidance. And it’s prudent to look at those things. So yes, I do think that schools across the country are following this case and others closely to gather information.

The one thing I will share with you that I’ve seen at every school I’ve worked at is that at the core of this issue, schools are most concerned with the well-being of their students and coordinating the myriad of laws with the dynamics of the issue of sexual misconduct in the context of their unique campus culture, climate, history, personnel and resources. I see a dedicated effort across the UNC campus to do that.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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