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University Refines Policies On Sexual Violence

The University’s comprehensive revised policy on sexual violence takes effect today.

Representing 16 months of work of a 22-member task force, which included students, faculty, staff and a community member, the new policy also covers discrimination, harassment and related misconduct, interpersonal violence and stalking. It clearly lays out the types of conduct prohibited by the University, offers clarity on key terms — such as “consent” and “incapacitation” — and creates a more easily navigable adjudication process for cases that go to hearings.

It contains few, if any, surprises. The work of the task force was transparent, and those who followed that process could see that it dealt primarily with:

  • Clarifying definitions of various types of assault and harassment;
  • Making it easier for complainants to understand where to go for help and what happens at each point on that path;
  • Beefing up assault awareness and action training for everyone on campus; and
  • Changing the way UNC adjudicates cases that are carried all the way to hearings, a process that had been determined to be flawed.

The wild card is the investigation of UNC by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. That process began in March 2013 and is not finished; it eventually could result in further requirements — even sanctions — for a system that University officials have acknowledged was insufficient to the needs of assault victims.

In that sense, the new policy reflects the University’s desire to leave nothing over which the government might quibble. Whether the new policy will be taken into account in the investigation is not known.

The new policy comes as the Office of Civil Rights generally has been observed as being unhappy with the way colleges and universities are handling the issue. More than 70 schools currently are under investigation as assault victims have begun holding their schools’ feet to the fire for providing inadequate information on where complainants should go; for having poorly focused, overworked and poorly trained counselors and other officials; for being insensitive in the handling of reports; and for haphazard adjudication of cases.

UNC is one of those schools, the result of complaints brought by five women — an alumna and two women who say they were raped and who were students when the complaint was filed in early 2013; a former administrator in Student Affairs; and a woman who remains anonymous. UNC was one of the starting points of what now is a national network of assault victims.

The issue also is plagued by public misunderstanding. While complainants can choose to turn to local law enforcement, universities have no choice but to be involved — they are required by federal law to both find a path to justice and to support victim and perpetrator in a way that satisfies government standards.

Much of what the University is doing now is defined by a relatively new lineup of people devoted to handling complaints, from first reports through counseling and medical care to sanctions against perpetrators.

At one time, UNC put the responsibilities of Title IX coordinator, along with equal opportunity and disabilities issues, in the hands of one person; UNC recently separated the two. Title IX is the federal act that prohibits gender discrimination in education programs; it encompasses sexual assault, according to the federal interpretation of the law, on the ground that sexual assault can interrupt a student’s ability to fully participate in her or his education.

In the past year, UNC has hired recognized experts in Title IX compliance, in the investigation of sexual violence complaints, and in the process of guiding a complainant through what can be a frightful and complex process. Most recently, it brought in two new people — one devoted to educational programs for students as well as others on campus; and another to help steer complainants to available services while maintaining complete confidentiality, something that under federal rules not everyone in the process can promise.

Given the stress that accompanies an act of sexual violence, faith in confidentiality often is the first concern. Other critical issues for the task force were:

  • The definition of “incapacitated,” a key issue because alcohol and drugs often are a factor in sexual assault;
  • The definition of consent, which often is linked to incapacitation; and
  • Adjudication method.

A person who reports an act of sexual assault to the University may request that no action be taken, may request an investigation or may ask for voluntary resolution with the accused party. An investigation can lead all the way to a formal hearing, where the investigator reveals his or her determination of whether a policy violation has occurred. If the investigator finds a violation, the parties involved may accept the findings and sanction, ask for a hearing on the sanction or ask for a hearing on both the finding and sanction. In a finding of no violation, the complainant may accept the finding or request an administrative review.

The key change here is that students no longer will sit on the three-member hearings’ panels, which also are now required to have a higher level of training than before and be composed of faculty and staff. The task force agreed with national experts that students typically do not have sufficient understanding of and experience with assault matters and the law to be effective.

The University has created a website — sexualassaultanddiscriminationpolicy.unc.edu — to help the campus community understand the policy.

The policy mandates sexual-assault training for everyone on the campus, from a basic 30-minute online course that everyone must take to more detailed training for those more directly involved in the issue. Students began taking the online course when they arrived in August, and faculty and staff also will be required to take it.

The training is designed to help people identify the types of behavior that constitute discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex (including sexual violence), stalking and interpersonal violence; reaffirm that this behavior is not tolerated at the University; spread awareness of the resources and reporting options available; and encourage community members to report prohibited conduct.

The system used for the online training module will enable the University to determine whether an individual has completed the course.


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