WRAL Investigates

Records show scores of students found responsible for sex offenses at UNC schools

Posted November 9, 2020 5:45 p.m. EST
Updated November 9, 2020 7:18 p.m. EST

— Following a four-year court battle, University of North Carolina schools have started to release records of students who were disciplined for sex-related offenses – information that only raises more questions.

The state Supreme Court ordered UNC-Chapel Hill in May to turn over three elements of its disciplinary records dating to 2007: students' names, offenses and punishments. The order followed a lengthy legal battle pitting the state's public records laws against a federal law protecting the privacy of educational records, and UNC-Chapel Hill has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

After UNC-Chapel Hill released the records for 15 students, other UNC campuses began to follow suit: Western Carolina University released details of 30 cases, UNC-Greensboro 28, UNC-Asheville 11 and Winston-Salem State University nine. UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Pembroke each reported seven cases, while UNC-Wilmington reported six, Elizabeth City State University five and Fayetteville State University three.

North Carolina State, East Carolina University, North Carolina Central University, Appalachian State University and North Carolina A&T State University haven't yet provided records.

"The information we got is not perfect – it’s not everything you’d like to know – but at least it sheds some light in what had been a completely dark corner," said Hugh Stevens, the attorney who represented that media companies, including WRAL News parent Capitol Broadcasting Co., that sued to get the records. "It’s evidence of how the system is being administered on the various campuses."

Sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and sexual exploitation were among the offenses students were found responsible for, based on a preponderance of evidence. Only 17 of the students were expelled from the UNC system or their respective schools.

All but three of the cases involved male students. Two women at Western Carolina and one woman at UNC-Greensboro were punished.

The fact that Western Carolina, which has just 12,000 students, had the largest number of cases among the campuses that have turned over records, raises question, Stevens said.

"What does that mean?" he asked. "I don’t know, but that’s exactly the kinds of information that raises questions that need to be addressed."

One concern is a lack of consistency in how cases are handled, according to Georgia Nixon, an attorney who has represented accused students.

"Each school does it differently, but more often than not, it is not fair to the person the allegation is regarding," Nixon said. "Some schools conduct thorough investigations, but ... I’ve also seen somebody say, 'Hey, come in and tell your side of the story, and oh, by the way, you’re expelled.'"

UNC-Asheville records show the same student was punished twice for separate incidents in 2012 and 2013. Yet, he was allowed to return to school and graduate in 2018.

"The names, in some respect, are the least important of the three elements of information that we got," Stevens said.

WRAL Investigates confirmed two of the students on UNC-Chapel Hill's list were high-profile athletes:

Neither Hughes’ agent nor the Vikings responded to requests for comment.

Neither player was charged in criminal court. Stevens said that’s where these cases belong.

"The big question in my mind is why should our universities, with all else that they have to do, be handling these cases as all?" he said. "The authorities there have a lot of experience handling these cases, and with all due respect, university administrators don’t."

One case highlights the difference between the two processes. Kevin Olsen, the starting quarterback for UNC-Charlotte, was charged by police and was expelled in February 2018 after police accused him of raping his girlfriend. Seven months later, Olsen was found not guilty in court, yet his school punishment stands.

"There’s no question that the level of proof that’s required is different," Stevens said.

At the university level, the standard is a preponderance of evidence, meaning it’s more likely than not that the alleged offense took place. In criminal court, attorneys must prove a crime happened beyond a reasonable doubt.

Stevens and Nixon agree that the release of sexual misconduct records forces some needed transparency on public universities.

"They’re trying to control the damage, not trying to investigate what actually happened," Nixon said.

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