Published: May 1, 2013 Updated 14 hours ago
By Jane Stancill — jstancill@newsobserver
CHAPEL HILL — UNC-Chapel Hill’s policies and procedures surrounding sexual assault cases will undergo a review by a new task force of students, faculty and staff, the university announced Wednesday.
The university’s handling of sexual assault is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation after several women filed a complaint earlier this year with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The student complainants said that after being sexually assaulted, their cases were mishandled by the university.
A second federal investigation centers on whether the university properly disclosed sex assault statistics under the federal campus crime reporting law.
The issue has prompted student demonstrations and has put UNC-CH in national headlines for months.
The task force, with 21 members, will begin a review of procedures governing the university’s handling of student-on-student complaints of harassment, sexual misconduct or discrimination. The panel will begin meeting this month and will continue its work through the summer to craft recommendations.
The announcement of the new review comes before the findings of the federal government’s probe and before recommendations from Gina Smith, a nationally known consultant hired by UNC-CH to help the campus deal with the problem. She has visited the campus numerous times in the past few months to facilitate discussions about sexual misconduct.
Ann Penn, UNC-CH’s equal opportunity/ADA officer, appointed the group, which she said would build on future recommendations from Smith and federal guidance.
“Together, we will find the best solutions for Carolina,” Penn said in a news release.
The university’s current policy was revised in 2011-2012 in response to guidelines from the Office for Civil Rights, which has taken a hard line in telling colleges that their sexual assault policies must be in compliance with the Title IX federal gender discrimination law.
The women who filed the complaint against UNC-CH have criticized the university’s policy, saying it was written by administrators without significant input from students. They said the policy was complex, legalistic and insensitive to rape victims.
The task force includes five student representatives, as well as faculty, administrators and a local resident. It will be led by Christi Hurt, the university’s interim Title IX coordinator, who has been director of the Carolina Women’s Center.
‘We are listening’
In a campuswide email Wednesday, UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp wrote that the university had created three new staff positions to respond to sexual assault claims and to lead Title IX compliance efforts.
He said the university is taking the concerns seriously.
“You have made your voices heard, and we are listening,” he wrote. “I appreciate your efforts to make sure Carolina addresses the issue of sexual assault in a positive and constructive way.”
Thorp further explained that there has been considerable debate about why the university handles sexual assault cases rather than the police.
“The university is required by federal law to provide a process for investigating and deciding these cases,” he wrote. “Students may pursue criminal charges with the police in addition to – or instead of – pursuing cases through a University process. We encourage students to contact the police and pursue criminal charges.”
Sexual assault cases used to be heard by UNC-CH’s student-run honor court. The policy that was revised last year set up a procedure whereby cases go before a hearing panel made up of a student, faculty member and staff member.