University counters sexual assault complaint allegation
After nearly a week of silence, administrators began Thursday to address allegations against UNC’s handling of sexual assault cases that emerged from a complaint filed Jan. 16 with the U.S. Department of Education.
“The allegations, with respect to the underreporting of sexual assault, are false — they are untrue, and they are just plain wrong,” Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Leslie Strohm said at a UNC Board of Trustees meeting Thursday.
At the meeting, Strohm countered former Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning’s accusation in the complaint that the University Counsel’s office pressured her to underreport cases of sexual assault.
“We all know that allegations that are included on the front page of a widely read paper do enduring damage,” Strohm said. “We also know, if we think back, that allegations — even when they’re printed on the front page of a widely read paper — can be false.”
The complaint, authored by three current students, one former student and Manning, was filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and obtained by The Daily Tar Heel.
The complaint says the number of sexual assault cases that Manning submitted for 2010 was questioned by Office of University Counsel employees, who said the numbers were “too high” and suggested she review them.
The complaint says that the number of sexual assaults that appeared in the University’s Clery report for 2010 was three lower than the number Manning originally submitted.
The Clery Act requires all federally funded campuses to report crime statistics to the federal government.
At the meeting, Strohm provided trustees with an email from Manning addressed to Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls, dated Sept. 13, 2011. In the email, Manning wrote that there were 16 total sex offenses in 2010 — 12 on-campus offenses and four off-campus offenses.
But on Thursday, Strohm provided trustees with the 2011 Campus Security Report, which reported 23 total sex offenses for 2010 — seven higher than number reported by Manning.
Manning did not respond to calls for comment.
Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, both filers of the complaint, declined to comment on the discrepancy.
The security report details that 19 sex offenses were reported on campus in 2010, while four were reported off-campus.
Of the cases not reported in Manning’s email, four occurred in residence halls, and three occurred on other areas of campus, according to the security report.
“We reported 43 percent more sex offenses than Melinda Manning provided to us,” Strohm said.
“So the facts are these: The Office of University Counsel reported every single sex offense that Melinda Manning sent to us, plus seven additional sex offenses that we gathered through our outreach efforts,” she said.
Karen Moon, a spokeswoman for the University, said UNC obtained data for the seven additional sex offenses from other sources, including the Department of Public Safety and the Chapel Hill Police Department.
“Some false allegations are the result of misunderstanding, some are not,” Strohm said. “I fervently hope that this was a case of misunderstanding.”
Strohm said she could not comment on other allegations in the complaint because she has yet to receive a copy of it, but that it has renewed a conversation about sexual violence — one that is worth having, she said.
To spark that conversation, Chancellor Holden Thorp announced at the meeting that the University is consulting with Gina Maisto Smith, a legal and policy expert who has experience with sexual misconduct issues.
Smith has dealt with universities facing allegations surrounding sexual assault. She previously consulted with administrators at Amherst College after a sexual assault scandal surfaced in October.
She was recommended to Thorp by Amherst’s President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin.
“As soon as I saw this coming, I sent an email to Biddy,” Thorp said in an interview. “She just told us what a great job Mrs. Smith had done for Amherst, and so we decided to engage her.”
Thorp said UNC is seeking required approval to retain Smith.
“In talking with her, we feel that she has excellent ideas and experiences that can bring a healthy outside perspective to where we are on campus today,” Thorp said at the meeting.
In an interview, Smith said she was contacted a few days ago and is currently involved in discussions about ways she can support the University.
“My goal is to incorporate my history and expertise and weave that in with campus culture,” Smith said.
She listed three goals: working to eliminate sexual misconduct, addressing its effects and preventing its recurrence.
Smith said she listens to students and aims to develop a fair and balanced process that will meet students’ needs.
She said she was pleased see the initiative taken by UNC administrators.
“The issues around sexual misconduct are not unique,” Smith said. “What is unique is an open, transparent, committed response to student wellbeing that comes from the top.”
Pino said regardless of what happens behind closed doors, it is important that UNC take the community into account.
“We are a voice that needs to be listened to in this,” she said. “Right now, we’re a University of the people that is ignoring the people.”
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