Consultant suggests improvements for UNC in dealing with sexual assault issue

jstancill@newsobserver.comMarch 28, 2013 

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Gina Maisto Smith, a nationally recognized expert who was hired by UNC-Chapel Hill to facilitate a campus conversation surrounding the university's handling of sexual misconduct cases, speaks during a Faculty Council meeting Friday, March 8, 2013, at UNC-Chapel Hill's Sonja Haynes Center for Black Culture and History. Faculty and guests discussed a variety of topics including sexual assault on campus and recommendations for reform in athletics.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— After weeks of conducting a campus dialogue about sexual assault, a consultant hired by UNC-Chapel Hill told trustees Thursday that the university can improve in four areas – climate, policies, training and implementation of federal guidelines.

Gina Smith, a nationally known expert on sexual misconduct, has met with student groups, faculty and staff for weeks to discuss the dynamics of the issue as federal officials look into UNC-CH’s handling of sexual assault cases and its compliance with crime reporting laws. The investigations were prompted by a January complaint from several students, a former student and a former administrator who say mishandling of sexual assault cases at the school violates federal Title IX anti-discrimination law.

Smith spoke for more than 45 minutes to the UNC-CH Board of Trustees on Thursday about what she has concluded so far in her work on campus.

The question she gets most often, she said, is why universities adjudicate criminal matters of rape and sexual assault in the first place. The answer is that Title IX law says colleges and universities that get federal funds must have procedures in place to offer victims counseling, support, reporting options and process for deciding complaints.

But sexual misconduct is a complex issue eliciting strong emotions, made even more complicated on a college campus, where statistics show only 5 percent of such crimes are reported and the average delay in a victim report is 57 days, Smith said. In 80 percent to 90 percent of cases, alcohol and drugs are involved. Often, the complainant and the accused know each other, and more often than not, the case hinges on one person’s word against another, she said.

The response of university staff needs to be coordinated and in compliance with a myriad of laws and regulations. And it has to be sensitive and caring, she said.

“If we are not tending to the individuals in these cases in the way that we know they need to 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.”

In those word-against-word cases, it’s a guarantee, she added, “that when one side or the other is unhappy with the result, they are not going to be pointing the finger at each other. They are going to be looking for another reason, and that is the process.”

Complaints about response

The women who filed the federal complaint have said university staff made statements that implied the women were at fault. One said an administrator likened rape to a football game and asked her what she would have done differently when looking back on it. Another complainant said that after her attack, when she struggled with her studies, a staffer suggested she was lazy.

A former prosecutor of sex crimes, domestic violence and child abuse, Smith was hired by UNC-CH to help coordinate a campus conversation about sexual violence. A university spokesman said he did not know how much the university would pay Smith, nor the source of funds, because the campus had not received an invoice yet.

Smith said Thursday she’s working with a dozen other schools on the issue.

“This is an issue that doesn’t only plague UNC-Chapel Hill,” she told trustees. “This is an issue that plagues every college and university in the country, and more broadly this is an issue that plagues society.”

She said students had been forthright and engaged in the process, submitting their thoughts on note cards and in on online suggestion box. Smith particularly pointed to male students as significant contributors of ideas for solutions.

Others aren’t so sure the conversation is having the desired effect.

In a recent interview, Andrea Pino, one of the women who filed the complaint, said students have told her they’re “being talked at.”

“I think it was a good intention, but again, it’s the university hiring a consultant,” Pino said. “It’s good public relations, it’s good legalese, but it’s not what we need.”

‘Quite open’

Smith told trustees, “You have a plethora of wisdom and opportunity. There is a pulling together of your community that is quite unusual and quite open about this issue.”

She said the issue has gained tremendous traction nationally recently in the aftermath of high-profile cases, including at UNC-CH. She attributed that to new federal guidelines issued in 2011, as well as the Penn State child abuse scandal, the fact that victims have greater willingness to speak out and that they effectively used social media to communicate their stories.

“The combination of those four factors is breaking the culture of silence,” she said.

The next step is to turn the conversation to a proactive and preventive approach.

“We have been seeking culture change and it doesn’t come quickly,” she said. “It comes slowly, but it only comes through education.”

Smith has not completed her work. She is expected to issue recommendations at the conclusion of the campus wide dialogue.

She made several early observations about improvements UNC-CH could make. Among them:

•  Climate. Smith said the university must foster a climate of trust, tending to the needs of a student who comes forward to report an assault. “The way we respond out of the gate will forever affect the trajectory of one’s healing and of one’s ability to use our processes,” she said, “and enable us as an institution to allow our values to shine and to allow our systems to have integrity and credibility and be trusted. It’s like medicine – triage it properly.”

•  Training. Training needs to be broad, Smith said, so that everyone on campus understands the issues and resources available to help students. Faculty, administrators and staff need to understand their responsibilities under federal law, so that they know what to do if sexual misconduct is reported to them.

•  Policies. UNC-CH’s policies should be tweaked, Smith said, and communicated in a way that is accessible and understood by students. “We need to write the policy from the other end of the telescope,” she said.

•  Implementation. The best way to follow laws and guidelines is to have good structures in place for implementation, Smith said, with good communication among law enforcement, student affairs staff, Title IX compliance employees and others. Teams should be formed to coordinate response to reports of sexual misconduct, she said.

Reaching out

Student Body President Will Leimenstoll said he is worried that students currently in crisis because of a sexual assault might be afraid to come forward.

Smith responded by saying she is concerned about “active cases” too, but added that the university has hired two new employees that handle complaints and investigate them. They are reaching out to students who may be facing difficulty now, she said.

Chancellor Holden Thorp said the university is lucky to have Smith sorting through the issue.

“Although this is difficult, we embrace the opportunity to work on this and have these conversations,” he said. “We’re going to be an even better university going forward thanks to all of her work.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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