Navigate

UNC Comes Under Fire in Sexual Assault Case

A UNC student’s complaint that she was raped repeatedly by her boyfriend escalated into a national story when he fired back with his own complaint, and the UNC Honor Court has charged her with harassment. The University is fielding charges that it engineered that complaint in retaliation against the woman for filing a federal complaint over its handling of assault cases.

Sophomore Landen Gambill, two UNC alumnae, a former UNC administrator and a woman who remains anonymous filed a complaint in December with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights over the University’s handling of Gambill’s assault case. The Daily Tar Heel reported in January that it had been provided a copy of the complaint, but no one else has reported seeing it, and UNC’s Office of Student Affairs said that as of March 1 it had not seen it. The complainants accuse UNC of underreporting assault cases, mistreating sexual assault victims and creating a hostile climate for them.

The University has denied in strong language both that it has encouraged anyone to file an Honor Court complaint and that it treats assault complaints with anything less than the utmost diligence.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, insidehighered.com and other news sources across the country have picked up on the report, and traffic is lively in social media. The dialogue is complicated by the fact that the University has yet to receive the complaint, the proceedings of the Honor Court and other bodies that deal with student conduct are kept private, and UNC is bound by privacy laws not to discuss matters related to specific students.

One of the Carolina graduates, Annie Clark ’11, confirmed the filing of the federal complaint. Clark, who received a University Award for the Advancement of Women in 2009, said the DOE had asked for clarification on some of the complaints. She said the filers had submitted more than 100 additional pages of supporting documents.

Gambill, who has publicly criticized UNC’s handling of assault victims — including holding a press conference on the steps of South Building — did not respond to the Review’s request for an interview.

Clark said that when she reported her own assault in 2007, “I was met with a really victim-blaming response.

“Because of the current culture of UNC, if you think about female students, some of them won’t take classes, some of them won’t go running late at night.

“When students came forward, many times they were told, ‘This is your fault.’ ”

On Jan. 24, Leslie Strohm, vice chancellor and University general counsel, appeared before the UNC trustees and vehemently denied that anyone was manipulating sexual assault reports. The claims “are false, they are untrue, and they are just plain wrong,” Strohm said.

Strohm showed trustees an internal email dated Sept. 13, 2011, in which Melinda Manning ’94, who had been assistant dean of students, presented 2010 statistics she had gathered on sexual assault cases, which totaled 16. Strohm also pointed out the University’s official report on sexual assault cases for that year, which totaled 23 – seven more than Manning had reported. Manning is one of the signers of the federal complaint. She received a University Award for the Advancement of Women in 2010, the year after Clark received it.

“We reported 43 percent more sex offenses than Melinda Manning provided to us,” Strohm said, according to a report in The News & Observer of Raleigh. “So the facts are these: The office of university counsel reported every single sex offense that Melinda Manning sent to us, plus seven additional sex offenses that we gathered through our outreach to other offices like campus police and Chapel Hill police.”

In a March 1 statement, Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 said: “Sexual assault is intolerable — at Carolina or anywhere else. We are committed to responding effectively and fairly if sexual misconduct occurs. We are continuing to make the improvements necessary to have the best possible approach to addressing these issues. In the past year, we have revised our policy to be fair and supportive.”

Thorp also denied the claim that UNC retaliated via the Honor Court. “Administrators have no authority over how charges are made in individual Honor Court cases,” he said.

The following account of the events was given to the Carolina Alumni Review by the attorney for the former boyfriend, whose name has not been released. According to John Gresham of the law firm Tin Fulton Walker & Owen of Wilmington, the couple’s relationship began to deteriorate as school resumed after the December holidays in 2011. Gresham said that his client made some comments about the couple’s sexual relationship to others and that the comments got back to Gambill. Gresham said she then filed a request for a no-contact order from the Office of Student Affairs. Shortly afterward, he said, she filed a sexual misconduct charge.

Gresham said that he did not know whether a no-contact order was issued at that point but that his client was suspended from school. Then, Gresham said, his client was told the only way to overturn the suspension was to undergo a psychological examination.

The University’s Emergency Evaluation and Action Committee Policy and Procedures include a provision for a student’s case to be handled by a special committee outside the student judicial system. “Occasionally emergency situations arise in connection with student behaviors, which require a faster response than the student judicial system’s procedures can provide,” the policy reads. It says that the committee can have a student evaluated “by a mental health professional of the Committee’s choice or may administratively refer a student for evaluation by the University’s Counseling and Wellness Services Office. … The Committee may also consider opinions and recommendations offered by a mental health professional retained by the applicant or student.” In either case, the committee is not bound by the resulting opinions or recommendations.

Although it’s not known whether the EEAC was invoked in this case, Gresham said that in the process his client discovered that it was not a psychological evaluation so much as “the exam was clearly meant to elicit information” about the case. He withdrew for the rest of the semester.

When the sexual misconduct case was heard in May, UNC was in the process of relieving the Honor Court of jurisdiction in sexual assault cases. So, Gresham said, it was heard in the interim by the University Hearings Board made up of two students, two faculty members and one administrator. The decision on two counts, Gresham said, was a unanimous not guilty. His client was found guilty by 4-1, he said, of verbal harassment.

At that point, Gresham said his client started trying to get reinstated to UNC. As Gresham describes it, the University then asked for another psychological exam, and the student’s parents insisted it be by a person of their hiring. After continued sparring over the evaluation issue, Gresham said, the student was reinstated on the condition he continue to see a psychologist, who would report results to UNC. The student was reinstated for the spring 2013 semester.

Gresham said a stipulation put in early in the process was that the couple could not live in the same dorm. He said that in January the two found themselves living across the street from each other, the result of UNC’s dorm assignment to the reinstated student.

In February, the former boyfriend filed a complaint with the Honor Court that said Gambill was harassing him. Gresham said his client does not seek damages or punishment, just an end to Gambill’s alleged harassment.

The DTH said this about the federal complaint:

“The complaint is rich with stories of hostility, including the administration’s failure to train Honor Court members who facilitated sexual assault hearings, to treat both the accused and accusing student fairly and to keep survivors informed.

“The complaint also accuses UNC of violating the Clery Act and its Federal Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights, which requires universities to provide victims certain basic rights.”

The newspaper said the complaint charged that the University counsel’s office had pressured Manning, who earned her law degree from UNC in 2001, to underreport sexual assault cases, telling her the 2010 number was too high; the complaint also says Manning was a victim of a hostile work environment, the paper said. Manning left the University late last year.

In her comments about the filing of the federal complaint, Clark said UNC staff had inadequate training for administering Title IX mandates on dealing with assaults. “When they are trained, it’s minimal, it’s non-comprehensive and it’s not good.”

Asked how she would like to see the University deal with the complaint, she said: “I think it’s multifaceted. I think on a very basic level there are certain administrators, who have been named, who need to be held accountable for their actions. When the policies are written I want to see them implemented in a way that is fair not just for the plaintiff but for the alleged perpetrator.

“I want to see universities actually talking about this issue in a way that is student-centered instead of compliance-centered. I think often they’ve focused on compliance in a legal sense … not what’s best for a student.”

Lately most of the outside attention to the case has been on the Honor Court charge against Gambill.

UNC issued a statement Feb. 26 that said some students who work in the honor system have “received threats to their personal safety” after Gambill was charged with harassment. The statement went on to say: “This University works hard to encourage students to come forward and report instances of sexual violence. No student has ever been disciplined for reporting a sexual assault or any Honor Code violation. Further, no University administrator filed or encouraged the filing of charges in this case; there is no retaliation by the University.”

The Honor Court governs student discipline, including academic and social behavior, by considering complaints and, where it deems appropriate, filing charges that can lead to a variety of sanctions — ultimately expulsion from school. Led by a student attorney general, its charter prohibits University administrators from interfering with its work. But a rework of the University’s policies on dealing with assaults last year took sexual assault cases out of its hands. A student who claims an assault by another student is encouraged to file a complaint with the student complaint coordinator or deputy Title IX officer, or the Equal Opportunity/ADA Office. A student’s decision whether to contact the police is an entirely separate matter.

The News & Observer published the Honor Court’s charge against Gambill: “Disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes with another … so as to adversely affect their academic pursuits, opportunities for University employment, participation in University-sponsored extracurricular activities, or opportunities to benefit from other aspects of University Life.”

Gambill told the newspaper: “This is clearly retaliation from the university about me filing the [federal] complaint and about me speaking out. I think they want me to shut up and to be quiet and not to talk about it anymore. I think they’re trying to scare me into silence.”

She also told The N&O that she regrets originally pursuing the matter through the Honor Court. “It was awful. It was a terrible, grueling experience. It was one of the worst days of my life. It made me and my family miserable. My parents still suffer because of it.”

Clark said of the charge: “I think it’s absurd, but I also think it’s indicative of a culture. It’s an example of what happens when survivors come forward many times, and not just at UNC. I’ve received literally hundreds of calls from around the country at other universities that say, ‘Me too, me too, me too.’ I don’t want to vilify UNC, I love UNC.”

In January, the University retained Gina Smith, a nationally recognized lawyer and consultant on sexual misconduct issues, to help “guide an open and transparent conversation about how the issue of sexual assault affects the campus and culture that is focusing on education and engagement.” Smith, a former prosecutor, has helped other schools on issues related to handling of sexual assault complaints.

The University has taken a hard look at its policies and procedures for addressing and responding to sexual assault allegations in the past year.

It has produced a revised Policy on Prohibited Harassment, Including Sexual Misconduct, and Discrimination that complies with the new federal guidelines (unc.edu/campus/policies/harassanddiscrim.pdf). The policy lowers the burden of proof from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “preponderance of the evidence”; provides equal appeal rights for both parties; provides a choice of two methods of resolution, formal and informal; offers a central inventory of resources available to help students who have experienced interpersonal violence, along with additional information through the UNC Student Wellness Office (studentaffairs.unc.edu/departments/student-wellness.html/); and expands the role of the Ombuds Office so that it is available to help students identify and evaluate options for dealing with difficult situations.

UNC has created two new staff positions: a student complaint coordinator/deputy Title IX officer in Student Affairs; and an investigator in the Equal Opportunity/ADA Office, whose full-time job will be to handle cases involving student harassment, sexual misconduct and discrimination.

It plans to step up campus awareness and education on its policy and how to report or respond to reports of sexual assault. Other details are available at campusconversation.web.unc.edu/actions-taken/.


Share