Federal complaint accuses UNC of 'indifference' toward sexual assault

Posted January 21, 2013 6:28 p.m. EST
Updated January 21, 2013 7:48 p.m. EST

UNC-Chapel Hill seal on sidewalk

— A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student, former administrator and two others have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights over the university's handling of sexual assault reports on campus.

The 34-page complaint alleges that university officials violated federal laws by dismissing the reports of sexual assault victims who came forward, failing to adequately train employees in offering support for those victims and downplaying rape statistics.

UNC junior Andrea Pino, one of the complainants, was sexually assaulted last March and now works as a peer educator for other sexual assault survivors on campus. She said she spoke with 76 people who claimed to have been sexually assaulted at UNC and noticed a disturbing trend.

"They weren't being believed. They were being told they were making up their mental illnesses. They were told their depression counted as consent," Pino said. "I was hearing stories almost every day, and I was the only one listening to them."

Of the 76, she said, only five reported the assaults to UNC. None, she said, have gotten justice.

"They go through this system in which they are not believed, made to relive their story over and over again, have it dissected and scrutinized and, in the end, have it fall behind an administration that doesn't believe any of it happened," Pino said. "It was literally something I could not understand, coming from a university I care so much about."

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp said in a statement Monday that the university has not received a copy of the federal complaint and cannot comment on it. He did say, however, that the university takes sexual assault very seriously.

"We are all working together to make sure that our process for handling these cases is fair, effective and supportive," Crisp said.

Pino, however, said the university treats sexual assault with "deliberate indifference" and that many victims don't even report it.

"Survivors don't feel like they can report. They don't feel empowered," she said. "There's a big silence around sexual violence."

In her case, Pino said, the trauma she endured in the assault made her story difficult to tell.

"I didn't report my assault because I received a concussion five minutes into my assault and there were no witnesses," she said. "I didn't feel like anyone would believe my story because I, myself, didn't have it all together."

Students have started an online petition, which has received more than 1,000 signatures, asking Chancellor Holden Thorp and the UNC Board of Trustees to take action against "hostility, victim blaming and lack of certain administrators' support when reporting sexual assault and harassment."

"It takes an entire community recognizing the problem – not just students, not just staff and faculty," Pino said. "Sexual violence needs to be addressed."