Op-Ed

If we name sex violators at UNC, victims could suffer again.

Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications for UNC-Chapel Hill.
Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications for UNC-Chapel Hill.

UNC-Chapel Hill declined to write a response to The Wilson Times editorial, citing ongoing litigation. However, it provided a letter from Joel Curran, vice chancellor of university communications, to The Daily Tar Heel in October 2016, before the suit was filed. Here is an edited version of that letter.

I can understand a student journalist’s instinct to want to know the identity of a fellow student who has been through an adjudication process about an issue that’s so important on college campuses including Carolina. I also appreciate the interest in advocating for as much transparency as possible about the processes and policies that affect the lives of students so profoundly when it involves sexual assault and sexual misconduct.

However, the University must again respectfully disagree with the DTH’s assertion that releasing the names of students “found responsible” in these cases constitutes a “public service.” Rather, we’re convinced that such disclosures would have quite the opposite – and devastating – impact on victims, as well as the campus community. Our point of view is directed by federal privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and informed by many opinions held by victims, witnesses, investigators, counselors and others. Following is a summary of our position:

▪  Carolina has a legal and ethical responsibility to protect the privacy rights and educational records of all students. FERPA protects all education records from disclosure; courts have found that student conduct investigations that fall within Title IX are education records. FERPA permits, but doesn’t compel universities to disclose the name of a student, the violation committed, and the sanction imposed if the student is found to have violated rules or policies for a violent crime or forcible sex offense. Among leading universities that are Carolina’s peer campuses, we’re not aware of any that have publicly disclosed the names of students found responsible. We don’t believe Carolina students should be subject to different standards than their peers.

▪  Carolina spent the last several years taking a comprehensive look at how our campus approaches all aspects of sexual assault and misconduct. Paramount to those efforts is providing a private process in which victims can file reports, request accommodations, and receive compassionate care.

▪  Releasing names of those found responsible in sexual assault or misconduct cases will inevitably lead to disclosures about the identity of victims who put their trust in the University’s process and don’t want their identities revealed or discovered. It also could compel individuals found responsible to publicly air concerns in a manner that’s at odds with the University’s desire to preserve the confidentiality and reputational interests of everyone involved. The potential for public disclosure also threatens to undermine the University’s efforts to encourage individuals to report these cases and would have a chilling effect on their participation in the Title IX process. There is the real risk that disclosure would re-traumatize victims who already decided it’s in their own best interest to put a sexual assault incident behind them.

▪  The Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office reports a 52 percent increase in formal investigations of sexual assault and a 156 percent increase in requests for accommodations, resources and other support between 2013-14 and 2014-15. We’re concerned that the disclosures you seek would erode the confidentiality of the process and negatively affect students’ willingness to report in the future.

▪  Universities are not courts of criminal law. The federal government requires campuses to run their own Title IX processes and to use a preponderance of the evidence – meaning more likely than not – standard. The University has a compelling interest to ensure that its process is as effective as possible in serving the campus community. And that point leads back to our concern that the inevitable disclosure of victims’ names will erode trust in the process.

The University collects and discloses a great deal of information about crimes committed on or near campus, including those involving sexual assault. That publicly available information includes incident reports created by our Department of Public Safety when investigating potential crimes, as well as the summary statistics that appear in the annual security report and a new report produced for the first time last April by the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.

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