By MICHAEL BIESECKER
Posted: Friday, Mar. 01, 2013
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. A sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who faces possible expulsion after publicly asserting that she is a rape victim says campus authorities are complicit in perpetuating a climate of sexual violence.
About 300 students rallied Friday with the student, Landen Gambill, outside the office of UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp. Though she has not publicly identified the man she alleges raped her, Gambill was accused last week of violating the student honor code by creating an environment that is “intimidating” for him. Her supporters say a student-run honor court previously found the male student not guilty in a secret trial where it was suggested Gambill shared blame for what happened.
“It is so important everyone realize this is not about me,” Gambill said. “I have been treated with great injustice, but there are so many other survivors who have been treated just as poorly as I have and even worse.”
Standing at a little more than 5 feet tall, Gambill spoke into a microphone that amplified her voice clearly over a large, tree-lined courtyard. Many of those listening held hand-lettered signs with such statements as “The Silencing Stops Here and Now” and “It’s Time to Start Protecting Survivors Instead of Rapists.” Some wore lanyards dangling colorful plastic whistles to symbolize that whistleblowers should be protected.
Gambill is one of five women, including a former assistant dean, who have asked the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education to investigate what they claim is systematic underreporting and inaction by the university on sexual assaults. A spokesman for the federal agency said this week it is still evaluating whether to open an investigation.
The Associated Press doesn’t typically identify victims of sexual assault. However, Gambill has come forward in the hopes her story will force change at the university.
“We – students, faculty, staff and off-campus allies – are determined to make Carolina a place where survivors are believed, supported and protected,” Gambill said. “I am not seeking vengeance on my perpetrator and I am not doing this for attention. I am doing this because I want a university where survivors can raise concerns about the way they were treated without the fear of being called false accusers and without the fear of being charged with an honor code violation.”
Gambill has said that when she reported being assaulted, a UNC administrator dissuaded her from seeking criminal charges, so she sought recourse through the honor court.
Under the university’s rules, the student honor court determines whether the honor code has been violated. Students and others can allege the violations and they are not criminal charges. If found guilty of violating the code, possible punishments range from the most severe – expulsion – to loss of privileges.
Gambill now stands accused of “disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes” with another’s academic pursuits.
UNC officials say the court stopped trying sexual assault cases in August, following new guidance on handling sexual assaults and harassment claims issued by the Department of Education to universities across the country.
The AP has not been able to review a copy of the federal complaint against UNC. Such complaints are typically not public record until after the case in question has been closed.
A copy was obtained by the UNC student newspaper, which reported that the complaint accuses the school of underreporting sexual assault cases for 2010 in an annual report to the federal government on campus crime. The complaint also alleged that campus officials allowed a hostile environment for students reporting sexual assault. It includes reports from about 60 unidentified students who say they were victims of sexual assault at UNC.
It appeared no university administrators attended Friday’s rally. UNC officials have said they can’t discuss the specifics of Gambill’s case while stressing that the campus honor court is run by students. A staff member appointed by the university advises the court.
“Sexual assault is intolerable – at Carolina or anywhere else,” Chancellor Thorp said. “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.”
UNC has added two new employees to coordinate student complaints and compliance with federal laws, as well as a former prosecutor charged with “guiding a conversation about how sexual assault affects both our campus and its culture,” Thorpe said.
Generally regarded as one of the nation’s top public universities, UNC is already reeling from an athletics and academic scandal that forced Thorpe to announce he will step down as chancellor this summer.
Gambill was joined Friday by a cohort of other students who said they were victims of sexual assault. None indicated their attackers had been criminally prosecuted.
Gambill said she had been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support since she decided to go public with her story.
“Even though this has been difficult, I am certain that change is coming,” she said. “I refuse to sit back and watch survivors be called crazy sluts and liars. … Rapists can be comfortable on this campus. If they’re not, I say that is a step in the right direction.”