Survivors say releasing records on campus sexual assault is a delicate balance

On Sept. 30, The Daily Tar Heel and 10 other news organizations issued a public records request to the University for all records concerning people found by University processes to be responsible for rape, sexual assault or sexual misconduct.

Information in sexual assault records is protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a student privacy law commonly known as FERPA. However, FERPA includes a provision that allows universities to release information from sexual assault cases after the accused has been found to have committed assault.

The DTH has set an Oct. 28 deadline for the release of the records.

Vice Chancellor of Communications and Public Affairs Joel Curran said the University’s point of view is directed by federal law.

“Carolina has spent the last several years taking a comprehensive look at how we approach all aspects of sexual assault and sexual misconduct,” Curran stated. “Paramount to that approach is providing a confidential process in which victims can file reports, request accommodations and receive compassionate care.”

Curran said releasing the names of student assailants could inadvertently identify the victims as well.

“That risk threatens to severely undermine the progress we’re making in encouraging individuals to report these cases and have a chilling effect on their participation in the Title IX process,” he said.

Courtney Triplett, a UNC student and survivor of sexual assault, said there is a delicate balance between protecting survivors and publicizing the information the University has so far withheld.

She said it is important to understand that the ways in which survivors deal with their experiences and move forward with their lives can vary tremendously.

“It may be extremely painful, extremely triggering, for someone who has never told anyone,” she said. “It’s complex and no person is the same in the ways they go about trying to heal from something like that.”

E., a survivor of sexual assault who prefers to remain anonymous, similarly said it is important to hold the University accountable in releasing this information, but it should be on the survivor’s terms.

“No one should have to tell their story before they’re ready,” she said. “Definitely no one should have their story be told by others before they’re ready.”

Betsy O’Donovan, general manager of the DTH, said it is hard to say what kind of information would be found in the documents.

“We take victim privacy very, very seriously,” O’Donovan said.

But to report on the University, she said the DTH needs to know how sexual assault affects campus safety.

“We know how many sexual assaults happen — we know a certain amount about the disposition of those cases, but we don’t really have enough information to understand what this issue is,” O’Donovan said. “We are quite interested in seeing anything in these records that will help us look at this larger picture.”

O’Donovan referenced Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer recently found guilty of sexual assault, and noted that, had Turner been adjudicated through university procedures similar to UNC’s instead of the court system, his case would never have come to light.

Triplett said in order to correct the problem of sexual assault on campus, students need to be aware of what, specifically, needs correction.

“Going forward they do need to be transparent about their past, acknowledge it and then go forward from there,” she said. “Going forward needs to be more than just an online module that you can click through in 15 minutes.”

R., a survivor of sexual assault who prefers to remain anonymous, said she believes the University does not want to release the name of assailants in order to protect itself from lawsuits.

She also said the likelihood of identifying a victim of sexual assault in connection with the assailant is slim. If only the name and the sanction are released, she said, the only people that would be able to identify a survivor would already be aware of the situation.

“I just don’t really feel that that’s a huge concern,” she said. “Like if you’re releasing details of the case, then sure, that would be more concerning for me.”

She said releasing more information would not only hold the University more accountable, but also allow survivors to make more informed decisions when reporting assault. She said survivors should be more aware of the average length of the process and the types of sanctions people receive.

“Those were two things I was concerned about when I was making decisions for myself,” she said.

Triplett said though it’s important to think about the privacy of the victim, it is very possible that UNC has an underlying agenda in not wanting this information released.

“I think that the University does have a responsibility to its students, but they are dependent on people to come to this University and they do have a reputation to uphold as well,” she said.

R. said if she saw the name of her assailant in the newspaper or some public format, she would feel like he was being held accountable and like the school was being transparent.

“I think that it would make me feel like my time spent going through the investigation process was actually worthwhile.”

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