CHAPEL HILL — UNC President Tom Ross said Friday he would launch a campus security initiative across the UNC system in the aftermath of allegations that UNC-Chapel Hill and Elizabeth City State University mishandled sexual assault cases and underreported campus crimes.
The evaluation will get under way in the coming months and will include a look at a variety of issues, including university policies and procedures for handling sexual assault cases, operations of campus police departments and accurate and timely reporting of campus crime. Ross said he would appoint study groups that will include campus administrators, police officers and student affairs staff, as well as UNC system administrators.
“What we want to do,” Ross said, “is be sure that each of our campuses is following good practices.”
The UNC system previously undertook a study of campus safety in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007, but the focus then was on panic alarms, lockdowns and more stringent checks of prospective students’ backgrounds.
Now it appears the primary consideration is sexual assault, which has been in the national spotlight in recent months as women across the nation have filed complaints under the federal Title IX anti-discrimination law.
Five women filed a Title IX complaint in January against UNC-CH for its handling of sexual assault cases, along with a separate complaint about its reporting of campus crime. Since then, the university has hired a consultant, held a campuswide conversation about sexual assault and launched a review of its sexual assault policy, even as the U.S. Department of Education is investigating the complaints.
Then, last month, the chancellor and police chief at Elizabeth City State stepped down upon the revelation that 126 crimes reported at the campus were improperly investigated by the university’s police.
Several other officers have either resigned or been put on leave, and the State Bureau of Investigation is probing the situation.
“What we found was a police department that didn’t have good procedures either in the investigative stage or the reporting stage,” Ross said. “Those are the places where we found some pretty serious shortcomings.”
Clearing old cases
A former Rocky Mount police chief was brought in to run the campus police force, and the city police department in Elizabeth City took over the investigation of the old cases. Ross said 100 of the 126 cases have been cleared, and a security consulting firm is assessing the university’s reporting of campus crime under the federal Clery Act.
Ross said the university had contacted the U.S. Department of Education about the problems and would submit corrected Clery crime reports once all of the cases are reviewed.
Of the ECSU cases, there were 18 reports of sexual assault that were not sufficiently investigated, the university has said.
While the handling of sexual assaults will be a big focus of the coming review, Ross said the group will look at whether campus police have appropriate training and whether campus officials are coordinating enough with law enforcement.
“This is more than just sexual assaults,” Ross said. “This looks at campus violence overall. We think there are some new developments that encourage us to be sure that our departments are as well trained and prepared as possible for a variety of different kinds of incidents that might occur. It’s just the right time to look at campus safety.”
Others may take note
Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, said the UNC system review could have a ripple effect across the nation.
“It’s a big system; it’s a well-known institution,” she said of UNC. “I think that many other colleges and universities will take note and watch what happens.”
The Clery Center, a Pennsylvania-based campus safety advocacy group, helped train Penn State University campus employees on reporting crime, collecting statistics and crime prevention in the aftermath of the child sexual abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky.
Kiss said there has been a shift in attitudes in recent years. It’s less about hiding campus crime statistics, she said, and more about solving crimes and treating victims with respect.
“There’s really been a movement of students throughout the country who feel empowered to file complaints,” Kiss said.