CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is working hard to improve the way it handles sex assault cases on campus, Chancellor Holden Thorp said Friday in an online letter to students and faculty.
"Sexual assault is one of the greatest challenges facing campuses across the nation, including Carolina, and it is an issue that I am committed to addressing before I leave office," said Thorp, who plans to become provost of Washington University in St. Louis in July.
The U.S. Department of Education notified UNC-Chapel Hill this week that it has launched an investigation into sex assaults on campus after five women, including a former assistant dean, asked the department's Office of Civil Rights to look into what they called an atmosphere of sexual violence at the school.
Their complaint accuses UNC-Chapel Hill of under-reporting sexual assault cases for 2010 in an annual report to the federal government on campus crime. It also alleged that campus officials allowed a hostile environment for students reporting sexual assault.
Thorp said he welcomes the federal investigation, which he said will show the strides UNC-Chapel Hill has made in handling sex assault cases since the Office of Civil Rights issued nationwide guidelines and recommendations in 2011.
"Our system is still not perfect," he said. "There is more work to be done, and we are committed to making additional changes that will improve the way sexual assault cases are handled at the university."
Gina Smith, a former prosecutor and nationally recognized expert on sexual assault issues, has been hired to help the school strengthen its policies in such cases. She met with groups of students this week to obtain feedback as she drafts recommendations.
"UNC, like every other school, is searching every day to improve processes and to provide good service for the well-being of students," Smith said. "I don't see anything happening here at UNC that is gravely different than at campuses across the country."
Thorp said the university also hired two employees to investigate sexual assault allegations and help survivors of sexual assault get the information and resources they need.
"We're focused on the safety of our students, as well as faculty and staff, and have an obligation to do everything we can to provide the care and support they need if a sexual assault occurs," he said. "In those instances, we must act promptly to thoroughly investigate and address any misconduct."