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UNC's sexual assault policies lag behind federal standards

The University has yet to implement new sexual assault guidelines prompted by the U.S. Department of Education last spring.

While administrators planned to have new policies enacted this fall, the handling of sexual assault cases has instead fallen on the back-burner, leaving the University’s Honor Court in limbo.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights sent a letter in April to universities and colleges that accept federal money. The letter outlined guidelines to improve university responses to sexual assault reports on campus.

The guidelines state how schools should handle sexual violence cases under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act in order to prevent a hostile environment for accusers.

Morgan Abbott, vice chairwoman of the undergraduate Honor Court, said the University’s failure to act has left the Honor Court in a middle ground where it is neither complying with University regulations nor federal standards in handling sexual assault cases.

“We are at a no-man’s land where we can screw up at any moment,” she said. “We don’t pretend like we have all of these answers, but we want the changes to be prioritized.”

Abbott will meet today with Chancellor Holden Thorp and Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs, to push for action.

Abbott will present both administrators with letters from students urging the University to prioritize the sexual assault policy changes.

A need for change

While the University was supposed to work throughout the summer toward policy changes to be enacted in the fall, Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning said a final deadline for implementing the new guidelines is unknown.

The guidelines issued by the Department of Education would change the standard of evidence and the appeals process used in a sexual assault case that goes through the University’s Honor Court.

Manning said the guidelines issued by the Department of Education are meant to prevent colleges from covering up sexual assaults on campus.

“You can understand, schools are afraid that they are going to get a bad reputation if a lot of sexual assault is reported — we need to change our thinking,” Manning said.

“I am actually more suspicious of a school that says there are no sexual assaults reported. It is a problem at every campus in this country.”

No change in policy

This semester, the Honor Court started using preponderance of evidence, which means a person can be found guilty of sexual assault if he or she “more likely than not” committed the act.

But the policy is only practiced and is not yet a part of written guidelines, which Abbott said can make it difficult for the court to confirm rulings.

“Our court is making changes on the fly to be compliant but it is not on record,” she said.

Another change the University must implement would allow both the accused and the accusing student a chance to appeal the ruling of the Honor Court. Under current policies, only the accused has the opportunity to appeal.

The UNC Department of Public Safety has not changed its sexual assault reporting policies because they are already in accordance with Clery Act guidelines, which mandate the reporting of campus crime to law enforcement and the publication of crime statistics.

“The majority of sexual assaults that were reported to the University were included in our statistics,” said Randy Young, spokesman for the department.

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The University and the Department of Public Safety investigate sexual assault cases separately.

Manning said UNC has struggled to alter its policies to comply with the Department of Education’s guidelines because they are “legally complex.”

The department’s letter did not include a deadline for policy changes, but Manning said Duke University and the University of Virginia have already implemented the new guidelines.

Duke finished altering its sexual assault polices a few weeks ago and the Department of Education has already approved the changes, said Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs at Duke.

He said the university had no trouble in changing the policies, which included lowering the standard of evidence needed to find someone guilty of sexual assault.

“Fortunately, we’ve been engaged in our response to gender violence for quite a while,” Moneta said.

Administrators at UNC are also discussing how sexual assault cases should be handled through the University’s judicial system.

A recent suggestion could create a specific panel — apart from the Honor Court — to handle all sexual assault cases, Manning said.

“So when you have separate bodies covering these cases you will have people who are willing and emotionally equipped to work a sexual assault case.”

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