In #MeToo era, UNC scrutinized for its handling of sexual assault and harassment

The Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
The Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

UNC-Chapel Hill has overhauled its policies, hired additional staff and launched new procedures since five women filed a federal complaint against the university in 2013 for poor handling of sexual assault cases.

Things have changed, but UNC still finds itself under the federal microscope after last week's finding by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that the university had violated the Title IX law that bars gender discrimination.

In an agreement signed by UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, the university submitted to federal monitoring and said it would review and revise its policies, collect data and provide reports to the government during the next year. At any time, federal civil rights investigators can visit the campus, interview staff and students and request more information to verify that UNC is complying with the law.

But the university did not admit to the violation, and there was no apology.

That was disappointing to Melinda Manning, the former student affairs administrator who joined four students in the original complaint against UNC five and a half years ago.

"I guess I feel like you need to admit fault before you can really have transformational change," said Manning, who now runs a program at UNC Hospitals aimed at stemming family violence. "Pretty much everybody had the same reaction, which was, 'Wait a minute, the university still hasn't acknowledged fault.'"

For victims whose college careers were ruined by sexual assault, Manning said, "I think a simple 'I'm sorry' would actually go a long way. That's what I really wish the university would do at this point."

UNC officials said no one was available to talk further about the issue during the holiday week.

Last week, Folt wrote to the campus community, "Nothing is more important to us than creating a culture at Carolina where every member of our campus community feels safe, supported and respected."

Outside monitoring

It's not the first time in recent history when UNC has been under the pressure of monitoring by an outside agency. Last year, the university escaped NCAA penalties after years of investigations related to the long-running athletic and academic scandal.

In 2015, the university was placed on probation by its accrediting agency related to the 18 years of no-show African studies classes at the heart of the scandal. After a year of monitoring, probation was lifted, and the university's accreditation remained intact.

Manning applauds this latest federal monitoring period and the emphasis on staff training. She also said the university has made progress in dealing with sexual violence.

But, she said, "we know that there's still work to be done because, unfortunately, I still hear about these cases. I still hear about cases gone wrong."

The agreement between UNC and the government requires the university to properly notify all parties in a Title IX case about policies, appeal procedures and the outcome at each stage of the process. Further, the university must collect information about harassment and sexual violence cases for the government and provide additional training to employees who handle complaints. The university already provides education to all students and employees, and agreed to continue that.

Besides these specific requirements, it's unclear what impact last week's agreement will have on the shifting landscape of campus sexual assault.

Colleges and universities are required by law to investigate and adjudicate sexual misconduct, when, in many cases, victims choose not go to the police. Colleges employ investigators to look into the facts of the case, and some cases end up in a campus hearing. Students can be suspended or expelled if found responsible.

Campus confusion

Across the nation, though, there is confusion about how universities should handle sexual misconduct cases.

Last fall, the Department of Education tossed out federal guidelines issued in 2011 by the Obama administration, which recommended a 60-day timeline for resolution of cases and established a lower burden of proof — a preponderance of evidence — in findings of misconduct. Rape survivor advocates applauded the new approach.

Now, in interim guidelines issued last year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says colleges are allowed to use preponderance of evidence or a higher standard — clear and convincing evidence. There is no fixed timeline for resolution, only that colleges make a "good faith effort to conduct a fair, impartial investigation in a timely manner designed to provide all parties with resolution," according to a question-and-answer document from the Department of Education.

Without permanent guidance from the government, colleges are waiting to make changes to their policies. Many are still using the preponderance of evidence standard.

That has been criticized by lawyers and others who say the process is unfair and can derail an accused student's future. Increasingly, students are fighting the system, hiring lawyers and in some cases filing civil suits against universities. Earlier this year, Duke settled a lawsuit brought by a a former student after the university tried to expel him when a conduct board found him responsible for sexual misconduct.

Kerry Sutton, a Durham lawyer who handles such cases, said Title IX is "such a quick moving target, that expecting UNC or any school to be in constant, moment-to-moment compliance is not achievable."

Sutton, who typically defends accused students, said she sees a system with implicit bias in favor of accusers. She said it's obvious from reports written by campus investigators or video interviews of witnesses.

The Office for Civil Rights letter about UNC, she pointed out, is focused on alleged victims.

"Until someone says there are two students, or two parties involved here, they can't possibly hope to level the playing field," Sutton said. "That's drastically unfair."

She worries that cases are rushed. This week, UNC denied her request for an extension on a case. The federal report, though, criticized UNC for investigations dragging on too long, with most formal investigations taking more than double the 60-day standard.

Cases should be about the parties, Sutton said, but are too often tied up in a university's reputation.

"The way the system is now, it's virtually impossible for a university to make everyone happy and to get it perfectly right," Sutton said. "I mean, it's not going to happen. It seems like going into it, their position is, 'which one is most likely to sue us?'"

Legal clinic

Lauren Kulp, a UNC law and social work graduate student, has represented accusers in cases at Duke University as part of a legal clinic at UNC. For the past several years, law students there have been trained to work on Title IX cases, though they don't represent UNC students, she said, to avoid any conflicts of interest.

She said pro bono legal services are important for complainants who often have financial barriers or other reasons for not hiring lawyers. Some don't want to tell their parents about what's happened to them.

It's more typical for accused students to hire lawyers, Kulp said.

"The more Title IX cases are brought forward," she said, "the more people are retaliating and bringing defamation suits or the more they're suing their schools as a result of the findings."

Kulp said she has seen some improvement in the system in recent years. However, she said there is still a prevailing feeling that victims have a difficult path to a resolution.

"The road to justice is so long and cumbersome and confusing and vulnerable," she said. "It's just horrible, even if you do come out with a good verdict."

Manning said students should be able to take their cases through the criminal justice system, but most choose the university's process instead.

"So many district attorneys just won't take these cases because they know that they're hard cases to win," she said. "On top of that, it's hard if you're a college student. It's hard for you to miss class to be in court for a week — or if your trial is not held for two years and you've graduated by then."

Manning said she's concerned that any progress on university campuses will be lost because of changing federal standards or fear of lawsuits.

One thing won't change: greater awareness.

The UNC complaint helped spur similar actions by victims against universities across the nation in recent years. New policies have sprouted at many campuses.

And now discussion of sexual harassment and sexual assault are part of a national conversation, brought on by the #metoo movement and the fall of high-profile celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer.

"So many more people are talking about this, who, five years ago, would've never thought about it," Manning said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill