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Victim’s lawyer hopeful that federal investigations will force UNC to stop persecuting sexual assault victims

By Annamarya Scaccia
Wednesday, July 10, 2013 16:29 EDT
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The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill faces yet another U.S. Department of Education investigation — this time over allegations that the university retaliated against sophomore Landen Gambill for filing a federal complaint against UNC-Chapel Hill over its handling of sexual assault cases, reports the News & Observer.

The new federal inquiry is in response to a March 25, 2013 complaint lodged by Gambill with the department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which alleged that the UNC Honor Code case filed against the sophomore in February was retaliation for her participation in an OCR grievance filed in January — and was additionally retaliation for her talking at all about her reported rape and publicly criticizing UNC’s “treatment of sexual violence survivors.” The allegations against the university were additionally contained in a letter sent to former Chancellor Holden Thorp by Gambill’s attorney, Henry Clay Turner.

The OCR’s latest investigation will determine whether the since-suspended charges against Gambill (which were formally dropped in June) were retaliation against her, and will additionally look into the university’s decision to house her alleged abuser in a dormitory across from where she resided on campus, Turner says.

“I expect the OCR will conduct a thorough and credible investigation of these charges and I’m pleased that they’ve taken up that task,” Turner told Raw Story.

According to Karen Moon, director of UNC News Services at UNC-Chapel Hill, the University is “reviewing the matter” and will fully cooperate with the OCR investigation.

Tracy Cox, communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, says that investigations like these are important, especially given NSVRC reports that show nearly 25 percent of college women and 15 percent of college men experienced sexual assault while in school. “Changing the rape culture that exists on college campuses has to involve everyone, especially university administrators,” she said. “The way these cases are handled shapes whether other victims come forward. Are victims’ voices heard? They need to be. The world is watching, and we’re at a tipping point.”

The UNC’s student-led Honor Court, a disciplinary system overseen by the Office of Student Conduct, indicted Gambill in February on charges that she violated the university’s honor system by “intimidating” and “creating a hostile environment” for her ex-boyfriend, a fellow student she reported to the university for sexually and verbally assaulting her. After he was convicted of harassment but not assault by the Board, she spoke out about the failings of the system without naming him publicly, in apparent compliance with the portion of the code which forbids students from behaving in a way that impairs the educational experience of peers. The charges, which could have led to Gambill’s expulsion, were suspended in late March and dropped in June, when all Honor System violations brought under the code’s “disruptive or intimidating behavior” provision were dismissed pending review.

Two weeks before Gambill’s second OCR complaint was filed, the UNC commissioned Dr. Barbara Lee, a Rutgers University professor and counsel with Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP, to conduct an external investigation into the retaliation claims. Lee’s report, released May 24, found no incidences of retaliation by the university but did conclude that “the University’s decision to delegate both the content of the Honor Code and the disciplinary process to a student-controlled and administered process is very problematic” and that “the text of the Honor Code provision under which [Gambill] is charged may be vulnerable to constitutional challenge.” Lee didn’t interview Gambill in the process of her investigation on April 29 and April 30, claiming the sophomore denied her request.

Turner, however, told Raw Story that Gambill wanted to participate “in any good faith investigation,” and would have “gladly participated” if “the university had done anything approaching a good faith investigation.” But, Turner alleges, Lee’s probe was far from “credible.” Rather, Gambill’s lawyer asserts that the university hired Lee to “talk to the people they wanted her to talk to and to view the documents they wanted her to view.” He also claims that Lee could not have conducted a thorough probe at the rate in which she was hired — $7,500, or less than 20 hours under her $400-per-hour fee.

Beyond that, in an letter provided to Raw Story, Turner told the university that he himself spoke with Lee on two occasions — first via phone on April 26, and in person on April 29 — and provided her with a written proposal delineating what would constitute a proper investigation, including interviews with Gambill, former Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning and 10 other people involved in the complaints and honor court case. Among the 10 people Lee did actually speak with, only five were part of Turner’s proposal.

“The university’s decision to pursue the meritless charges, and knowingly pursue unconstitutional charges, against Landen for months, I don’t think there’s really a particularly plausible explanation other than that it was in retaliation for future deterrence,” Turner told Raw Story. “It’s important to note that retaliation doesn’t have to be the university doing something bad. It could be the university turning a blind eye to what is happening after the fact.”

OCR’s latest investigation is the second opened by the federal office into the UNC-Chapel Hill’s actions in Gambill’s case. The first, which is ongoing, involves the January complaint, brought by Gambill and four other women. In it, the complainants charge that the UNC improperly investigates reports of sexual violence, provides inadequate services to sexual assault survivors, and pressured former Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning to under-report sexual assaults on campus. Among other laws, the grievance charges the university with violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits institutions receiving federal aid from discriminating on the basis of sex—including sexual harassment, sexual violence, and sexual assault, and violating the the federal Clery Act, which mandates that universities collect campus crime statistics and announce potential security threats to campus (which is being investigated by the Department of Education’s Clery Act Compliance Division).

“It’s also important to note the [new] OCR investigation is one piece of a much larger puzzle and the university’s response to these issues is yet to be determined,” said Turner. “We see some really good things happening. We see some movement at the top. It looks like it could provide opportunity for some really large systematic changes that need to happen.”

Part of the “movement” that Turner sees is the formation of a 22-member sexual assault task force, assembled by Ann Penn, the director of the Equal Opportunity/Americans with Disabilities Act Office (who announced her retirement last week). According to a May 16 announcement, the task force — made up of students, faculty, and staff, and chaired by UNC’s Interim Title IX Coordinator Christi Hurst (on leave as Carolina Women’s Center director) — will convene throughout the summer to “review and enhance” the university’s policies and procedures for handling student-on-student complaints of harassment, sexual misconduct or discrimination.”

“The future and work of that task force is going to be an important part of what the university’s ultimate response to these issues is,” said Turner. “Ultimately, though, we’re going to have to wait and see whether the faction in the university [that] believes that it’s more important to not have an appearance of a sexual assault problem wins out over those of us who believe it’s more important to actually deal with our sexual assault problem.”

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