Chapel Hill, N.C. — A 22-member task force began Wednesday the intricate process of examining how the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill handles campus sexual assault cases and how administrators can improve that system.
Student protests in recent months prompted Chancellor Holden Thorp to appoint the task force. The protests followed the filing of a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.
Five women asked federal investigators to look into what they called an atmosphere of sexual violence at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their complaint accuses the school of under-reporting sexual assault cases for 2010 in an annual report to the federal government on campus crime and alleged that campus officials have created a hostile environment for students reporting sexual assault.
“We know these issues are emotionally charged and incendiary. I’d ask you to try to take emotion out of this process so we can fully and fairly identify these issues,” Gina Smith, a nationally recognized expert on sexual assault cases, told the task force.
UNC-Chapel Hill has hired Smith to help it strengthen its policies regarding campus sexual assaults.
“(Victims) are not being treated fairly (and have) a perception of feeling judged or isolated, not having right support, before, during or after the process,” she said.
Smith has held several campus conversations in recent weeks to solicit feedback from students and staff, and the task force will take those ideas into account. The group also has set up an online suggestion box to gather input.
“We must not judge,” Smith, a former prosecutor, told the panel.
The group plans to meet weekly through the summer, with the goal of presenting recommendations to administrators when students return to campus in August.
“We’re going to have very different perspectives on what a policy should do and who we’re accountable to,” said task force member Sarah-Kathryn Bryan, a rising junior. “I think that, as long as we have a solid policy with administration and staff, who are well-trained and accountable to upholding policy, then we’ll be able to move forward with a campus that doesn’t support rape culture.”
Reporter: Renee Chou
Photographer: Tom Normanly
Web Editor: Matthew Burns