UNC-CH drops Honor Court case against student who complained of sexual assault

jstancill@newsobserver.comJune 6, 2013 

— UNC-Chapel Hill has dismissed an Honor Court case against Landen Gambill, who alleged a rape by a fellow student and spoke out about the university’s handling of sexual assaults.

The decision, announced Thursday by Chancellor Holden Thorp, followed an outside investigation into Gambill’s allegation that the Honor Code charge against her amounted to retaliation by the university. Gambill is one of five women who filed federal complaints earlier this year against the university over its handling and reporting of sexual assaults.

In the Honor Court matter, Gambill faced possible expulsion if found guilty of violating an Honor Code provision of “intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes” with another student’s academic pursuits. The charge was leveled by a student who was accused of rape by Gambill but was found not guilty of sexual misconduct in a 2012 judicial hearing on campus.

In media reports and campus rallies, Gambill said the university mishandled her case. Though she did not mention the student by name, she identified him as an ex-boyfriend. He later pursued the Honor Court charge, his attorney said, because of the fear and anxiety he suffered.

The Honor Court charge, and the threat of expulsion of Gambill, made international headlines, putting UNC-CH at the center of a national debate about the treatment of sexual assault victims on university campuses.

Gambill said Thursday she was glad she won’t have an Honor Court trial hanging over her head anymore. She dropped out of her classes in March, she said, because of stress.

“I just wasn’t able to focus on school and keep up with my classes,” she said. “I’m relieved and glad to know I can go back to school without having to worry about it.”

The independent investigator, Barbara Lee, a Rutgers University professor and expert on sexual harassment grievances, said in a report that there was no evidence of retaliation by the university. The Honor Court is entirely run by students, and the decision to go forward with the charge was made by a student attorney general.

Still, Lee found that the Honor Code provision under which Gambill was charged was vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. In a message to the campus, Thorp wrote that Lee’s review “brought into sharp focus concerns about this particular Honor Code provision” because of free speech issues.

University officials then decided that no student should be charged with violating the provision until it was reviewed by a campus Committee on Student Conduct. Further, Thorp wrote, all current cases stemming from violations of the provision, including Gambill’s, would be dismissed.

John Gresham, a Charlotte attorney who represents the male student, said a judicial board found his client responsible for verbal harassment, a violation of the same provision in the original judicial proceeding in 2012.

“I am assuming the university will clear his record immediately,” Gresham said.

‘Lack of accountability’

Beyond the “intimidation” provision in the code, Lee, the investigator, expressed more general concerns about the Honor System.

“Although I do not believe that the University itself retaliated against the female student through the male student’s attempt to silence her by charging her with an Honor Code violation, I do believe that the Honor Court system is flawed because of the University’s lack of accountability for a student-dominated process,” Lee wrote in a May 9 report, a copy of which was obtained by The News & Observer. “This particular incident – the Honor Code charge and the ensuing allegations of ‘revictimizing’ an alleged sexual assault victim – has exposed the problems inherent in a student-led system over which administrators and faculty have very little control.”

Though administrators at UNC-CH repeatedly said they had no control over the Honor System, students repeatedly sought out the advice of faculty and administrators during the Gambill case, according to Lee’s investigation.

The student attorney general met with a biology professor who served on an advisory committee to the Honor System to discuss details of the case. The professor told the student attorney general at one point that the male student was “entitled to have a voice,” the report said. But the attorney general said the professor did not push her to reach any particular conclusion, according to the report.

The attorney general also met with Erik Hunter, head of judicial programs in the Office of Student Conduct, who told the investigator that he thought the evidence for the male student was thin. The attorney general said Hunter did not try to change her mind about trying the case.

Increased scrutiny

The male student also met with university employees, including senior associate dean Desiree Rieckenberg, who he said tried to dissuade him from filing the complaint, the report said. The male student also met with Hunter, who said he answered questions about the process, according to the report.

The Honor System is undergoing increasing scrutiny. Faculty groups have also complained about the effectiveness of the system in recent months.

Thorp said the system is an important part of the university and dates back more than 100 years.

“This action is not a challenge to the important role of students in our Honor System, but is intended to protect the free speech rights of our students,” he wrote.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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