UNC found in violation of federal law in its handling of sex assault and discrimination

UNC-Chapel Hill has been found in violation of the Title IX anti-discrimination law after a five-year federal investigation into its policies and procedures governing sexual assault and harassment cases.

A letter was sent Monday night by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to four former UNC students and a former UNC administrator who filed the federal complaint in January 2013.

"OCR has determined that UNC has failed to adopt and publish grievance procedures that provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of student, employee, and third-party complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of sex, as required by Title IX," the letter said.

Without admitting to any violation, UNC entered into an agreement to review and possibly revise its procedures, to provide reports to the federal government and to submit to monitoring by federal officials. The university also agreed to resolve two allegations, including one that was not investigated fully before it had been concluded, according to the agreement signed June 21 by UNC Chancellor Carol Folt.

During the monitoring period, federal investigators can visit the campus, interview staff and students and request further reports to ensure the university is abiding by the agreement.

The 2013 complaint touched off a wave of similar actions by women against universities across the nation.

Two of the female complainants from UNC, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, became national leaders in a campaign against sexual violence. They co-founded a national group, End Rape on Campus, and co-authored a book titled "We Believe You." They were also featured in "The Hunting Ground," a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses.

Andrea Pino and Annie Clark. THOMAS PATTERSON NYT

During the investigation, the federal government reviewed more than 387 files of complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence at UNC between 2011 and 2016.

From 2011 to 2013, investigators wrote, some UNC staff members were not adequately trained to implement the university's own procedures, resulting in a failure to respond promptly and equitably to some complaints. "The University's own records from that time period suggest improper action, or inaction, by University staff at different levels of the complaint process," the findings said. "Additionally, the University's inadequate recordkeeping made it difficult to determine the extent of any noncompliance during this period."

UNC-Chapel Hill students including Andrea Pino, foreground, speak during a press conference Wednesday, January 30, 2013, on campus. The students spoke out against what they say is a hostile environment and insufficient support at UNC-Chapel Hill for those who have been sexually assaulted. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Investigators also reviewed 285 complaints under the current policy from 2014 to 2016 and found that UNC "generally conducted adequate, reliable and impartial investigations of the complaints." However, investigators had concerns about whether the university provided timely resolution of the complaints. Of the 285 files, 18 were formally investigated by UNC, according to the letter. Of the 18 formal investigations, only five were resolved within the timeframe of the university's procedures. The remaining cases were adjudicated in an average of 126 days but extended up to 213 days.

The findings also pointed to inadequate documentation that made assessing the university's response difficult.

However, the letter said the university has done a better job recently, citing "numerous steps to improve its response to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence." The letter cited the university's hiring of Title IX staff and investigators, training and prevention programs, a website with resources for students and better tracking of cases and trend patterns.

In a letter to the campus community, Folt and Vice Chancellor Felicia Washington thanked students and others for their advocacy, including a sexual assault task force convened in 2013.

"Nothing is more important to us than creating a culture at Carolina where every member of our campus community feels safe, supported and respected," their letter said. "While this concludes the OCR investigation, it does not conclude our commitment."

The women who filed the complaint said they were gratified with the results of the federal investigation.

"Today the Office for Civil Rights validated our allegations, and we can finally confirm that UNC was indeed in violation of Title IX. Five years later, and at the heels of the #metoo movement and the 46th anniversary of Title IX, I am glad that our complaint pushed campus sexual assault and Title IX to the national agenda, and I hope that Carolina takes this opportunity to recommit to truly making our university a safe and equitable campus for all students," according to a statement by Pino.

Clark added: "UNC is certainly not the only school that has swept sexual violence and harassment under the rug; however, our students have learned from a great place of higher education, and because we have the knowledge, privilege, and power to do so, we have and continue to hold the university that we love accountable. I, like Andrea and so many others am glad that our complaints have finally been validated publicly, but that is not the case for everyone. We as a society, have so much further to go. I want every student to feel safe everywhere, but especially at school — whether that is in kindergarten or college."

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill