UNC-CH women wage national campaign against sexual assault

jstancill@newsobserver.comJune 1, 2013 

  • Sexual assault on campus

    The Campus Sexual Assault Study, conducted in 2006, found that 1 out of 5 undergraduate women experiences an attempted or completed sexual assault during her college years. Among the findings:

    • A majority of sexual assaults occur when women are incapacitated because of alcohol or other substances.

    • Freshmen and sophomores are at greater risk than juniors and seniors.

    • The large majority of victims are assaulted by men they know and trust, rather than strangers.

    Source: “Campus Sexual Assault Study,” published in 2007 by the National Institute of Justice

In Chapel Hill, a college student gets a tattoo, a small “IX” Roman numeral on her ankle. On the West Coast, another “IX” is inked on another woman’s ankle.

The tattoos signify two women – compatriots and friends – coming together and overcoming other scars that are invisible: Both have told of being raped while students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Annie Clark and Andrea Pino got their ink badges on the same day in January, when they, along with three other women, filed a federal complaint against the university. They allege that the university mishandled sexual assault cases and violated students’ rights to equal education under the Title IX gender discrimination law. They also filed a complaint charging UNC-CH with underreporting sexual assaults under a campus crime reporting law. Both complaints are now under investigation by the federal government.

Neither Clark nor Pino knew the other would get a tattoo that day. Both wanted to mark the milestone – taking a stand for sexual assault victims, against a university they loved.

Clark, a 2011 UNC-CH graduate from Raleigh, and Pino, a rising senior from Miami, have already begun to change attitudes at the campus, where a task force is rewriting the school’s sexual assault policy. The university also hired new staff and a sexual misconduct consultant who has facilitated a monthslong campus conversation about the issue.

In the months since they got their tattoos, the 20-something women have become leaders in a national movement against a campus culture they say perpetuates sexual violence by keeping it under wraps and letting perpetrators off the hook.

The women formed what they call the IX Network, a coalition of students across the nation who are demanding that their colleges alter the way they deal with sexual violence. They have become informal consultants to sexual assault survivors elsewhere who have taken action against their own campuses.

Two weeks ago at a news conference in New York, Clark and Pino, in Tar Heel T-shirts, joined students announcing their federal complaints against Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

“The goal is just to present a united front against not only sexual assault,” Clark said in an interview, “but also the way universities across the country are handling and/or not handling it, how they’re covering it up when it does happen and how it’s been happening for years and years, decades actually, and how students, alumni, faculty and staff – we’re not going to put up with it anymore.”

Noted women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred was there, sitting next to Clark and calling her a “personal hero of mine.”

“The message is loud and it is clear,” Allred said. “Change is in the air, and those who refuse to see it and embrace it will find themselves buried under it by an avalanche of student protests, investigations and lawsuits.”

Clark, now an administrator at the University of Oregon, worked with Occidental College in California, which also is under a federal investigation. Pino recently flew to Dartmouth to brainstorm with students there.

The women have a 400-person Facebook page representing students from more than 50 colleges who want change. Along with others, they have raised $11,000 for a “Know Your IX” campaign to educate college students, starting this fall, on their rights under federal law.

The pair was featured in a New York Times story and received other national coverage. They have written for Huffington Post and other blogs. Their cause has even entered the cultural zeitgeist: an April episode of the TV drama “Law and Order: SVU” centered on rape at a college fraternity house. The show was peppered with bits of dialogue, description and experiences ripped from the women’s stories.

Pino has taken to calling her fellow activists gladiators. With Twitter and Skype and Facebook and Google Hangout, the battle has never been easier to wage.

“Annie takes the West Coast, I take the East Coast, and we pretty much connect everyone and help them learn their rights and help them take action in their schools,” Pino said. “It’s really more than just the legal. It’s how to organize an effective publicity campaign, how to organize social media, how to collect narrative, how to frame your narrative.”

A deeply personal issue

Their personal stories are what get people – not the sometimes tedious dissection of policy, federal guidelines and civil rights.

Clark doesn’t talk much about her attack, which she said happened off campus when she was a first-year student in 2007. But she does describe what happened when she reported it to a female administrator who no longer works at UNC-CH and whom she won’t identify. It has become a rallying cry in the movement and was quoted almost verbatim in the “Law and Order” episode by a character with the last name of Clark.

“Rape is like football,” Clark said the administrator told her, “and if you look back on the game, Annie, what would you do differently in that situation?”

Repeating the story at the New York news conference, Clark said: “I was being blamed for a violent crime committed against me. Rape is the only crime in society where we blame the victim instead of the perpetrator.”

Hearing that on a TV show, she said, was “surreal” and “somewhat painful.” On the other hand, millions of people heard it, too, which gives Clark some hope.

For Pino, publicly describing her rape, which she said happened at a party near campus in the spring of 2012, has been difficult. But she has not held back the details – her head slammed against a wall, her vision blurred from blood in her contact lenses, his fingernails digging into her scalp, the black Levis he wore.

“I remembered his eyes; I felt my throat close up; I felt his lips on my neck; I felt his teeth on my skin; I realized what many fear most: I was raped,” Pino recounted.

She ran home, bloody, and didn’t know what to do. Later, she reported it anonymously, slipping a piece of paper into a box on campus. The boxes for blind reports had been Clark’s idea when she was a student at UNC-CH.

Pino didn’t tell the police and didn’t pursue a formal process, fearing that she wouldn’t be believed. She began to struggle academically because of anxiety. An adviser wasn’t sympathetic, she said, and suggested that she was lazy about her schoolwork.

Pino would later contact Clark, who had graduated a year earlier. The anonymous box was a good thing, she told her, but the policy wasn’t working.

The two started to draft a Title IX complaint that they would eventually submit to the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. They listened to Supreme Court cases on their iPhones; they read thousands of pages of legal research. Two other victims from UNC-CH joined them. Months later, a former UNC-CH assistant dean of students, Melinda Manning, would sign on to the complaint.

Clark and Pino reached out to students who had made waves at Yale University and Amherst College. They realized that this was more than a UNC-CH problem, and it had to be presented that way.

“Instead of saying, ‘UNC is a bad place with bad administrators,’ we said, ‘It’s not just UNC; this is happening everywhere,’ ” Clark said.

Protests were launched, bringing unwanted attention and embarrassment to a campus that had already been through athletic and academic fraud scandals.

UNC’s response

UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp wrote a letter to students, faculty and staff members, saying, “We have a problem on our campus and we need to talk about it.”

The university’s top attorney strongly denied underreporting sexual assaults in campus crime statistics. Thorp also defended the university, saying it had carefully revamped policies to conform to 2011 federal guidance on sexual assault.

Federal law requires campuses to have a process for adjudicating student-on-student complaints, regardless of whether a victim takes a sexual assault report to police.

For years at UNC-CH, that process was conducted in a student-run honor court that some victims said was unfair. Now, though, hearings are conducted by a judicial board made up of two students, two faculty members and one staff member. The new policy provides both a formal and informal process for handling complaints.

Critics have argued that the new policy was written without input from students, faculty members and others with expertise in sexual assault. They say there hasn’t been adequate training for judicial board members, and they complain that the policy is overly legalistic and difficult to understand.

Once the five women filed the federal complaint, though, the university opted for a more inclusive process by creating a sexual assault policy task force with broad campus representation. That group will work through the summer to rewrite the policy.

In the spotlight

After the complaint was filed, the women were almost immediately in the media spotlight – on blogs, in newspapers, on TV. They invited the attention, sometimes tweeting national reporters with information.

One of the complainants, Landen Gambill, faced an honor court charge that accused her of intimidating a fellow student – by publicly alleging a sexual assault by a former boyfriend, whom she did not identify by name. That stoked outrage, and Gambill filed a retaliation complaint against the university.

There was also retaliation for Pino and Clark. Pino’s dorm was vandalized; photos of the damage showed obscene, spray-painted images on Pino’s bulletin board. Someone tweeted to Clark: “Karma will realign and punish all of you monsters for your crimes against humanity. Death to your cult of victimhood.”

But more often, the women received expressions of solidarity. Others from across the nation wanted to know how to get involved.

“That’s when people started to reach out and say, me too, me too, me too,” Clark said.

Sofie Karasek, a second-year student from UC-Berkeley, and three other women had filed a report of sexual assault against the same assailant, she said. He was allowed to graduate in December through an early resolution process, and Karasek said she felt no confidence in the school’s disciplinary process.

“I saw Annie and Andrea on the cover of The New York Times, and I just thought, ‘Wow, we have to get in on this movement because we are feeling exactly the same problems here at Berkeley,’ and we felt as though (the university) just wanted us to forget about it and ignore it,” said Karasek, a complainant in the federal filing. “So I’m really, really grateful to have the IX network.”

Manning, the former UNC-CH administrator, said the “ground was fertile” for the movement Clark and Pino were spearheading.

“It’s been at real personal cost to both of them,” Manning said, “but they’re dedicated to it.”

Manning, who has a law degree from UNC-CH, said she felt compelled to join the complaint. “I knew that because of my role, it would help give them a lot of credibility,” she said of the students. “I care a lot about the university, but I knew this needed to happen.”

There is emotional fallout, though, Clark said. She calls it “vicarious trauma.”

The other day it happened when she was in a convenience store buying gum. “Someone came up to me and was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re that girl. Let me tell you my story of sexual assault,’ ” Clark said. “That happens every single day.”

For Pino, only a year removed from her assault, the activism has helped relieve a sense of hopelessness and solitude that she felt.

“Personally, it’s been such a great healing process for me,” she said.

Asked why she does it, Clark said: “I guess the answer is why wouldn’t I? Nobody else is, and it needs to be done.”

The answer may also be found in her “IX” tattoo. It was her second. The first, a small female gender symbol on her wrist, was her “survival” tattoo after her rape.

The “IX” tattoo? That, she said, is about “fighting back.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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