CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Officials at North Carolina's flagship public university dispute claims they under-reported sexual assaults in 2010 to avoid looking bad.
The top attorney at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told campus trustees Thursday that the allegations are false. General Counsel Leslie Strohm and Chancellor Holden Thorp said they had not seen a complaint filed earlier this month with the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights.
A copy of the report was obtained by the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. That newspaper reported last week that current and former students and former assistant dean of students Melinda Manning accuse the school of under-reporting sexual assaults in an annual report to the federal government on campus crime.
It could take federal officials at least a month to review the complaint, which is not public record.
Strohm said 23 sex assaults on and off campus were reported in 2010, which was more than the number Manning forwarded to UNC-Chapel Hill officials. The university was able to compile information on the other assaults through outreach to law enforcement agencies in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County, she said.
"The allegations of under-reporting sexual assaults is false, untrue and just plain wrong," she said. "Some false allegations are the result of misunderstanding. I fervently hope this is a result of a misunderstanding."
The 34-page complaint alleges that university officials also violated federal laws by dismissing the reports of sexual assault victims who came forward and failing to adequately train employees in offering support for those victims.
The university takes "a balanced approach" to sex assault allegations, Thorp said.
"It is a daunting responsibility to get this right," he said. "It involves sensitive and difficult issues, and it involves trying to treat people fairly within that environment."
UNC-Chapel Hill has already consulted with and is considering hiring Gina Smith, a nationally recognized sexual misconduct expert who helps universities appropriately respond to sexual assault issues. Thorp said. He also has reached out to the president of Amherst College in Massachusetts, which has had similar issues.
"We want to make sure the policies and procedures and the climate we have is the best (they) can possibly be," he said.
One of the complainants declined to comment Thursday on the UNC-Chapel Hill officials' remarks.
Students have started an online petition, which has received more than 1,000 signatures, asking Thorp and the Board of Trustees to take action against "hostility, victim blaming and lack of certain administrators' support when reporting sexual assault and harassment."
Several students said Thursday that they were pleased with the university's response to the situation.
"I think that’s a sign the university is really working hard to provide support for students," Simone Reaves said.
"I have no doubt Carolina will take the steps are needed to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future," Kristina Redd said.