Panel discusses UNC-CH response to campus sex assaults

Posted July 31, 2013 11:48 a.m. EDT
Updated July 31, 2013 6:20 p.m. EDT

— A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill task force trying to improve the way the university handles sexual assault cases on campus got to the heart of the matter during an all-day meeting Wednesday.

Five women accused UNC-Chapel Hill of under-reporting sexual assault cases and said administrators created a hostile environment for students reporting assaults. The U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights is investigating the complaint.

Subsequent student protests prompted former Chancellor Holden Thorp to appoint the 21-member task force to study the issue, and the group has been meeting since May in an effort to assemble some preliminary recommendations before the fall semester begins next month.

Task force Chairwoman Christi Hurt called Wednesday's discussion "a very critical point for us."

"We're looking at the response process," said Hurt, who directs the Carolina Women's Center at UNC-Chapel Hill and is the campus' interim Title IX coordinator. "What happens when somebody reports that they've been a victim or they've identified somebody else who's a victim of violence?"

The group's draft proposal has changed several times in recent weeks as members drill down through policies and procedures – part of Wednesday's meeting involved precisely defining terms such as "consent," "hostile environment" and "interpersonal violence" – and Hurt said she expects more revisions in the coming weeks.

"What we want to do is have a policy that is carefully selected," she said. "I could see us being able to launch an interim policy in the fall that can continue to be worked on as people evaluate its successes."

"This is tremendously difficult work. These issues are very complicated," said Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs.

The task force wants anyone to be able to go online and report a complaint anonymously and then have that information forwarded to the appropriate UNC-Chapel Hill staff members.

"Affording an online option and also affording an anonymous option need to be part of a suite of choices that they get," Crisp said.

In addition to the task force, the university hired Gina Smith, a former prosecutor and nationally recognized expert on sexual assault issues, to help the school strengthen its policies in such cases.

"I think we are going to end up in a better place," Crisp said.