State News

UNC-CH students rally against sexual assaults

Posted February 28, 2013 8:24 p.m. EST
Updated March 1, 2013 6:20 p.m. EST

— University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students rallied Friday in support of a sophomore who has been accused of violating the school's honor code by speaking out about allegations of rape.

Dozens of students wearing whistles to demonstrate support of whistle-blowers gathered outside Chancellor Holden Thorp's office to express concern with how the campus handles sex assault cases.

"This administration will shout to the highest mountains that they support efforts to end a campus culture which supports sexual violence, yet they are silent about how they have contributed to it," one person said. "This is not leadership. It's division."

Some speakers talked of personal attacks, while others gave accounts for those who wished to remain anonymous. They all called sexual assault a crime that has become too common on campus.

"Until these things change here, we are all Landen Gambill," a speaker said.

The student-run Honor Court last week said Gambill had created an intimidating environment for the student she accused of raping her. The Honor Court, whose proceedings are private, previously found the man not guilty in the assault, Gambill and her supporters have said.

Under the university's rules, the court determines whether the honor code has been violated. Students and others can allege the violations – they are not criminal charges – an anyone found guilty of violating the code faces punishments that range from loss of privileges to expulsion.

Junior Andrea Pino, 21, said she hopes people realize sexual violence is pervasive at UNC-Chapel Hill and that Gambill isn't its only victim.

"Rape happens at the 'southern part of heaven.' Rape happens at the priceless gem. Rape happens at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill," Pino said.

The court's determination against Gambill have lit up the Internet with a Twitter hashtag – #IstandwithLanden – and various Facebook pages about safety at UNC, including a group called SAFER Carolina, started by Gambill, Pino and a friend.

"This isn’t about me. It's about the way survivors have been treated on the campus for years," Gambill told the crowd Friday.

She called for the university to craft a new sexual assault and harassment policy, provide training for administrators on handling such cases and an independent department for responding to assaults.

The university said in a statement that officials encourage students to report sexual assaults, but those at the rally said that doesn't go far enough.

"It’s time for us to stand up and refuse to be re-victimized," Gambill said.

Some UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members stood with the students at the rally.

"The university needs to commit vastly more resources to prevention," said Karen Booth, an associate professor of women's and gender studies. "We must all become part of the solution."

Pino and Gambill are two of five women, including a former assistant dean, who have asked the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights to investigate what they call an atmosphere of sexual violence at UNC. A DOE spokesman says the office is evaluating whether to investigate.

The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper obtained a copy of the DOE complaint and reported that it accuses the school of under-reporting sexual assault cases for 2010 in an annual report to the federal government on campus crime. The complaint also alleged that campus officials allowed a hostile environment for students reporting sexual assault.

It includes reports from about 60 unidentified students who say they were victims of sexual assault at UNC, Pino said. Copies of federal complaints are typically not public record until after the case is closed.

Gambill has said the honor code violations are the university's retaliation against her for speaking out. A UNC-Chapel Hill spokeswoman said that claim is without merit, noting that university administrators play no role in Honor Court proceedings.

Gambill hasn't publicly identified the student she says attacked her. Her code violation charges her with "disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes" with another's academic pursuits at UNC.

She said she never pursued criminal charges against her attacker, saying that university officials encouraged her to resolve the matter through the Honor Court and noted that she couldn't file charges until the Honor Court case was resolved.

After that, she said, she felt so victimized that she didn't want to go through the process again, although pressing criminal charges is "still a possibility."

University officials say the Honor Court no longer handles sexual assault cases.

In a statement earlier this week, UNC said it couldn't address the specifics of Gambill's case.

"This university works hard to encourage students to come forward and report instances of sexual violence," the statement read. "No student has ever been disciplined for reporting a sexual assault or any honor code violation. Further, no university administrator filed or encouraged the filing of charges in this case; there is no retaliation by the university."

Pino still maintains that the honor code charges against Gambill send the message to sexual assault victims that they'll be punished if they speak up.

"Are we telling survivors that if they come forward, it'll be their fault?" Pino asked. "Are we telling them that if they talk about it, they'll be shot down? Because it's a lot easier to make the rape girl go away than it is to address the problem of sexual violence."