Current Date: Tue, 11 Mar 2014 01:45:12 -0400
When the federal government mandated in April 2011 that all federally funded campuses reform their sexual assault policies, the University struggled for more than a year to craft an improved system.
Now, four months after the changes were implemented on Aug. 1, the promised reform has yet to fully take effect — leaving some students feeling abandoned by what they say were administrators’ rushed deliberations.
“The entire process of creating the new policy was very under wraps,” said Andrea Pino, a junior involved with sexual assault education.
“It was loosely addressed by administrators and didn’t have student input,” she said. “Sexual assault is a silent epidemic. And administrators aren’t addressing it with the prominence they should.”
And for some students, the new policy is plagued by problems that leave those who have experience with sexual assault feeling confused and ignored.
But administrators who said they spent long hours crafting a policy that complied with both federal standards and UNC’s needs said the changes are a beneficial step toward adjudicating and educating the campus about a growing national problem.
Changes to the sexual assault policy stemmed from the U.S. Department of Education in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter — urging universities to update their policies to make sexual harassment resources more accessible to students.
The letter mandated that the University comply with nearly 70 changes, including the requirement to completely remove sexual assault from the jurisdiction of the University’s student-led honor system.
That change forced the University to entirely build its new policy from scratch, said Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp.
“I don’t think people understand what a complicated undertaking this has been,” Crisp said.
“The ‘Dear Colleague’ letter set up this expectation that we would have a new policy,” he said. “That’s when impatience sets in.
“It wasn’t just something we could tweak or update.”
Despite the overhaul, students said the changes have moved too slowly, lacking key components needed for the system to run effectively.
The University has yet to hire a Deputy Title IX Officer, or student complaints coordinator, who would serve as the first level of contact for students who believe they have been sexually harassed.
With a hole in the most initial level of the policy, Pino said the process of reporting assault will confuse students.
But Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls said a delay in such a crucial hire is expected.
“Recruitments of any significant rank do not happen overnight,” Sauls said.
Sauls said the search was hindered by slow budget negotiations. But he said interviews for the position are being conducted and the position should be filled by the end of the semester.
Administrators appointed Associate Dean of Students Desiree Rieckenberg to serve as the interim Deputy Title IX Officer while the University continues to search for a permanent position.
If an incident of sexual assault were to arise this semester, Rieckenberg would use the new policy to handle the case. As interim Deputy Title IX Officer, she is instructed to meet with all students who file complaints to discuss available resources for support and options for pursuing a case.
While Sauls said Rieckenberg has handled complaints, no cases have yet been adjudicated.
Though Sauls said administrators are working toward finishing what is left, students said they are worried about what has already been done.
“The big issue is with the language of the policy itself,” said Tim Longest, a senior and member of The Daily Tar Heel’s editorial board.
Longest said the 48-page policy lacks clarity and is too broad, particularly in the way it defines words like sexual misconduct, consent and administrator.
“With lack of clarity and confusion, the policy itself could be a deterrent in reporting assault,” he said.
Sauls said a broad policy is necessary to prevent confusion that might arise if students were unsure of the category in which they would fit.
Crisp said he recognizes that sexual misconduct is under-reported, but that the administration is making every effort to make students more empowered to come forward when assaulted.
“We knew from the beginning this was going to be a work in progress,” Crisp said.
“Just because students are not sitting at the table with us does not mean we aren’t taking their input into account,” he said.
“And we’re bound and determined to get this right.”
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