UNC sexual assault victims speak up about imperfect system
In the spring, one female UNC student said her life was consumed by three short words: “I was raped.”
“It is unbelievable to me how hard it is to say that sentence,” she said. “It’s not, ‘I was assaulted’ or, ‘I was a victim of sexual misconduct’ or, ‘This girl claims she was attacked.’ But, ‘I was raped.’”
The months following her attack dragged her through whirls of emotions that convinced her she had reached her lowest point.
But now — months after her attack — she said that it was the events after her rape that sent her crumbling, consumed by panic attacks, flashbacks and unbearable paranoia.
She said her traumatic experience is a direct result of her treatment under UNC’s sexual assault policy.
“If I had known what would happen to me through this system, I don’t know if I would have made the same decision again,” she said.
The female student, who asked that her name not be printed for safety reasons, is not alone.
Her story reflects what sexual assault survivors say is a deeply rooted problem with the University’s handling of sexual misconduct — one that survivors say is inappropriate, time-consuming and traumatic.
The female student still has no answers. The male student who she said raped her is still on campus.
And in the wake of UNC’s recent transition to a new sexual assault policy, she said she is worried about the future of sexual assault survivors.
“It’s just become a game in which I have had to fight to receive information and general respect that I believe I should automatically be granted as a victim of a violent crime,” she said.
“It has become clear that this case was no longer about me,” she said. “It was all about politics, power and compliance.”
When the female student decided to file her assault with UNC in the spring, her case was caught in an unusual period — interim sexual assault procedures.
The interim procedures were implemented in January 2012 in response to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter, which called for any federally funded campus to update its sexual assault policies.
That mandate came in April 2011 — and was quickly recognized by administrators as an issue of importance, said Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls.
Sauls said the interim procedures temporarily brought UNC into compliance with the “Dear Colleague” letter, while allowing administrators time to rewrite the policy. The new policy was implemented Aug. 1.
From January to August, all cases were heard by a special University Hearings Board, a panel consisting of two Honor Court students, two faculty members and one administrative chair.
Some students whose cases were heard by that hearings board say their experiences were inappropriate — rich with insensitive questioning, unequal treatment and blatant violations of rights.
“It’s incredibly clear that those people had no idea what sexual assault is, what consent is,” said Landen Gambill, a sophomore whose assault case was processed by interim procedures.
“They were not only offensive and inappropriate, but they were so victim-blaming.
“They made it seem like my assault was completely my fault.”
As a freshman, Gambill was continually abused — sexually and verbally — by her long-term boyfriend.
When the relationship ended, she said she was met with months of stalking, threats and harassment.
Those actions lead her to press charges with the Honor Court. In her trial, Gambill said she was forced to answer irrelevant and inappropriate questions.
“The woman student said to me, ‘Landen, as a woman, I know that if that had happened to me, I would’ve broken up with him the first time it happened. Will you explain to me why you didn’t?’” she said.
Gambill said the court used her history of clinical depression and her suicide attempt — which she said was a result of her abusive relationship — against her.
“They implied that I was emotionally unstable and couldn’t be telling the truth because I had attempted suicide,” she said.
Gambill said the court’s ignorance reflected a complete lack of training.
But Judicial Programs Officer Erik Hunter said the Honor Court members and the student attorney general’s staff received a full day of training after the interim procedures were implemented.
“We spent a lot of time trying to help them understand some of the things they were going to be seeing, in terms of the emotional toll these kinds of hearings would take on folks,” Hunter said.
But Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning said training was limited.
“The training the Honor Court received then was an hour at the most,” she said.
Manning said she believes the faculty and staff on the hearings board received no formal training — which she said had the ability to affect cases.
But Sauls offered a third explanation. Although faculty received no formal training, he said, they each received individual training.
Henry Ross, a senior who served as an honor system counsel during the interim procedures, said he felt adequately trained to handle cases during that period.
“At no point did the court allow or did anyone try to introduce a question that was meant to embarrass, demean or blame anyone in that room in any way,” Ross said.
Gambill said her inappropriate experience with the honor system extended beyond questioning.
She said she was asked by her counsel to recount — in graphic detail — the story of her assault. She complied, with the understanding that the document would only be seen by those involved with the court process.
“He ended up giving both of my parents the document without my permission,” Gambill said. “He said he thought they were details they should know.
“To this day, my parents and my relationship is really struggling because of the guilt they feel and because of the graphic details that they heard that no parent should ever hear.”
Though Sauls said he could not discuss specifics of particular cases, he said generally, documents that are not public record should not be shared outside a trial.
As a result of the injustices she said she received, Gambill said she plans to file a full complaint with the Office for Civil Rights under the U.S. Department of Education.
In hopes that the federal government will investigate UNC’s handling of sexual assault cases, Gambill will submit the complaint with UNC junior Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, who graduated from UNC in 2011.
The female UNC student who asked that her name not be used said her experience with the honor system largely paralleled Gambill’s — fraught with questions that she said forced her to continually relive her attack.
But she said the insensitivity she experienced extended beyond the honor system, seeping into the administration.
At the conclusion of her hearing, in which the defendant was found not guilty, the female student said she felt abandoned.
She said she was never given key information, such as her option to appeal. As her case advanced, she said she was left uninformed of changes and new decisions.
She once approached Hunter about what she said was a lack of communication and a slow-moving process.
“Erik Hunter said that my actions and my student counsel’s actions and reactions in the past — which he means us complaining about being left out of decisions — frustrated him and caused him to withhold information to us that he would otherwise inform students of,” she said.
Hunter said he has never felt frustrated by students.
“There are times when I’ve met with students who have gone through our process who don’t understand why it’s the way it is,” Hunter said. “A lot of what we do is rooted in trying to make sure that we provide enough information and give students enough time to prepare to go through the process.”
The female student said that as UNC moves toward ironing out its new sexual assault policy, she is worried that administrative indifference demonstrated during her case will also plague future assault cases — particularly with the absence of Manning.
Manning will step down at the semester’s end.
“If it wasn’t for Dean Manning, I wouldn’t still be here,” the female student said. “It makes me scared for future survivors, who won’t even have this one solace that I had in Dean Manning.”
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