Published February 26, 2013
By Jane Stancill — email@example.com
CHAPEL HILL — Weeks after filing a federal complaint against UNC-Chapel Hill for its handling of sexual assault cases, a student faces an honor court trial herself, accused of “intimidating behavior” against a fellow student she says raped her.
Landen Gambill, a sophomore from Mooresville, was informed last week by the student-run judicial system that she has been charged with an honor code violation for speaking out about alleged abuse and sexual violence by an ex-boyfriend, who also is a UNC-CH student. A letter from the system to Gambill said that she had been charged with “disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes” with another’s academic pursuits at the university.
The accusation was made by the ex-boyfriend, who was found not guilty in an earlier honor court proceeding, according to Gambill. UNC’s honor court is its student-run judicial system. Its hearings and outcomes are typically private.
Gambill said she has never publicly named him.
“I’ve never said his name. This isn’t about him,” Gambill, a women’s studies and philosophy major, said Monday in an interview. “This is clearly retaliation from the university about me filing the (Office for Civil Rights) complaint and about me speaking out.”
In a statement, the university flatly denied retaliating against Gambill and pointed out that honor court charges are decided by students without any interference from administrators.
“This University works hard to encourage students to come forward and report instances of sexual violence,” the statement said. “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.”
A student official with the honor court declined to comment. But news of the charge against Gambill spread across the Internet, sparking global headlines and provoking angry commentary. This explosive twist of the story even led to threats against the personal safety of student members of the judicial system, the university said late Tuesday.
Last month, Gambill joined with two other students, a former student and a former assistant dean of students to lodge the federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The complaint accuses the university of violating the rights of sexual assault victims and of creating a hostile climate that denies victims the right to an education.
Gambill has been outspoken about an honor court process that she contends re-victimized her. In January, she attended a news conference on campus, where she spoke about her case and how the process was handled by the university. She was widely quoted in media accounts, saying, “There are rapists on this campus, and the university knows it.”
She recounted how last year she first obtained from the Dean of Students office a “no contact” order against the ex-boyfriend. He was suspended from the university and did not return until this semester, when he moved into a dorm across the street from her, she said.
The honor court hearing came after the “no contact” order, Gambill said. It was not clear why the ex-boyfriend was suspended before the hearing.
Gambill said she felt traumatized when members of the honor-court panel questioned her in ways that seemed to place blame on her. The ex-boyfriend was found not guilty in the proceeding, according to Gambill.
He has not been charged criminally. Gambill said she was dissuaded by the Dean of Students office from going to the police and pursuing an honor trial at the same time.
Now she regrets ever going to the honor court, she said.
“It was awful,” she said. “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.”
Gambill said the court members asked her questions that seemed to imply the assaults were her fault. And, she said, a previous suicide attempt before she came to UNC-CH was used against her by her ex-boyfriend’s defenders during the court hearing, to question her credibility.
Now, she faces another trial, and a range of punishments, up to and including expulsion.
“I think they want me to shut up and to be quiet and not to talk about it any more,” Gambill said. “I think they’re trying to scare me into silence. I mean, that’s the only possible justification. They want to punish me for calling them out and saying, ‘We deserve better than this.’”
University spokeswoman Karen Moon said in a statement Tuesday that the campus judicial system is entirely run by students, and administrators can neither encourage nor prevent charges against students. Those decisions are made by the student attorneys general, she said.
“Given that these charging decisions are made by Student Attorney Generals and not by campus administrators, a claim of retaliation by the University would be without merit,” Moon’s statement said.
Moon said that a faculty advisory committee is available to consult with the student court on difficult cases. But Moon said the university cannot comment on whether the faculty panel is involved in any specific case.
The honor system’s undergraduate attorney general, Amanda Claire Grayson, declined to comment about the case Tuesday, citing federal student privacy laws. “Please refer to the University’s statement on this matter,” she wrote in an email.
The action against Gambill has spawned outrage on blogs, on social media and at the university. Faculty traded emails on the news, and students and others took to Twitter, where they sounded off under the hashtag #StandWithLanden.
“Sick,” one wrote. Another tweeted: “It’s time to stop protecting the attackers and start helping the victims.”
Since Gambill’s sexual assault case went before the student court last year, the university has rewritten its policies about such cases. Now, sexual assault cases are no longer heard by the student court. Across the nation, universities and colleges are revamping policies to comply with anti-discrimination law under a recent directive from the federal government.
Last month, after the federal complaint was filed, UNC-CH announced it was hiring a nationally known expert on campus sexual misconduct. Gina Smith, a consultant and former prosecutor of sexual assault cases, has visited the campus in recent weeks to meet with students and administrators. Smith also worked with Amherst College, which has dealt with damaging allegations from a student who wrote about poor treatment by the college after a sexual assault. Another Amherst sexual assault victim committed suicide.
Smith said she couldn’t comment on an individual case, but overall she’s helping the UNC-CH campus with training and education, and facilitating an open conversation around issues of sexual misconduct. She will return to campus early next month.
“There is, across this country, in every college and university, a similar challenge, and that is, ‘How do we implement our policies and procedures in a way that best serves student well being?’” she said. “If there is a perception out there that we are not doing it, the perception alone is a concern and a challenge. And so, we have to address that.”
Gambill said she asked to meet with outgoing Chancellor Holden Thorp when she learned of the honor court charge against her. She was told by his staff that he could not meet with any student with a pending legal action because he had to remain neutral.
In a statement Tuesday, Thorp said student well-being is one of the most pressing issues in higher education.
“The Carolina community cares deeply about all of our students, including both students in this specific matter,” his statement said. “If we are to achieve the ultimate goal of eliminating sexual assault and violence from this campus, we must all work together.”
Gambill said she won’t be silenced. If the charge is not dropped, she said, she will demand a public honor court hearing.