CHAPEL HILL — A task force will begin to review UNC-Chapel Hills policy on sexual assault cases Wednesday four months after several women filed a federal complaint against the university and more than a year after campus leaders with expertise in sexual violence expressed concerns about the universitys policies and procedures.
At its first meeting on Wednesday, the 21-member panel of administrators, faculty, staff and students will hear from a nationally recognized consultant on sexual misconduct who has spent months meeting with groups on campus. The consultant, former Philadelphia sex crimes prosecutor Gina Smith, was hired by UNC-CH for $160,000 for eight months of work, a university spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Smith will give an overview on federal expectations for sexual assault policies and tell the panel about suggestions shes heard from a variety of people at the university.
Then the panel will get to work, meeting weekly during the summer to come up with recommendations for a revised policy, said Christi Hurt, chairwoman of the task force and interim Title IX coordinator, who is on leave from her position as director of the Carolina Womens Center.
The development of this task force acknowledges that we always have miles to go before we sleep, said Hurt, who worked for a decade on a statewide sexual assault coalition in the state of Washington. The university is willing to put resources and energy behind making sure that we are taking steps in the right direction to make it a safe campus for everyone.
She said the panel will be open to fresh ideas as it works to come up with revisions. Hurt will blog weekly about proposals; an online suggestion box will collect public input.
Were trying really hard to make this a process that people can engage with and help tell us their interests and concerns as we go, Hurt said, so that we are flexible about how we move forward.
The appointment of a broad-based review panel follows widespread media attention about UNC-CHs handling of sexual assault cases. In January, five women students, a former student and a former administrator filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Educations Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the university mishandled sexual assault cases and violated the students rights under the federal Title IX gender equity law.
A federal investigation of UNC-CH is underway, and across the nation, other campuses are fighting similar battles after similar complaints.
Andrea Pino, a rising senior at UNC-CH and one of the federal complainants, said the new task force is a validation of students concerns about UNC-CHs policy, which she said is legalistic, complex and overly focused on compliance.
She said students had complained about UNC-CHs policies last year but got nowhere with the university.
It was very much, you know, were in compliance, your concerns are being heard, but nothing was being done, said Pino, who has talked publicly about being raped last year. And then when we filed the complaint, it became a whole different conversation.
In late 2011, a staff committee focused on education around sexual assault and relationship violence wrote to Chancellor Holden Thorp offering help with a revision of the universitys policy, required under federal guidelines issued in the spring of that year. The letter expressed concern about the policy and a lack of training for people who hear sexual assault case proceedings.
As an institution, we should not simply adjust current policy to comply with the minimum standards set forth by Title IX, said the letter, signed by 15 staffers. Rather, we should create policy and procedures that will serve our students well. We want a policy that will help survivors get the help and support they need and that will hold perpetrators appropriately accountable.
One of the signers, Melinda Manning, an assistant dean of students, eventually left the university and signed on to the federal complaint.
The policy was ultimately revised in August of last year. University spokeswoman Karen Moon said student affairs administrators, with many other members of the campus community, worked to strengthen the campus process for responding to allegations of sexual assault. Several new staff positions were created.
University officials believe the current revised policy reflects a commitment to a fair, respectful process that complies with federal guidelines and is fair and supportive of the students involved, Moon said in a statement. However, the campus conversations that have taken place throughout the past academic year, including those led by Gina Smith last semester, have provided additional feedback for the new task force starting its work this week to consider.
A whole new look
So now the policy will get a thorough look by the 21-member panel that includes some of the same people who offered their expertise more than a year ago.
Pino said shes hopeful because the task force includes counselors, professors and academic advisers who encounter students and rape survivors daily.
It just shows you how different things are now, she said in talking about the makeup of the group. By filing a complaint we created a conversation that never wouldve happened.