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UNC administrators work to revamp sexual assault policies

When dealing with reports of sexual assault from students, the University faces a complex problem.

“We want to have a system that is ultimately sufficiently simple enough that it is accessible,” said Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls.

“On the flip-side, in developing that level of simplicity, we don’t want to foreclose opportunities for survivors to connect as they feel comfortable.”

Of the 43 reported sexual assault cases last year, it’s estimated that only one of those was prosecuted through UNC’s Honor Court.

Though a victim’s motivation to report or not report an assault differs in each case, in the end, University officials make the wishes of the victim a priority.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution and there can’t be because every situation is unique,” said Melinda Manning, assistant dean of students.

“Our goal is to listen, not to prescribe any sort of answer — to explain to them what their options are and help them decide how to move forward.”

Procedures old and new

This fall, University procedures for reporting and prosecuting sexual assault may look dramatically different due to a federal mandate from the U.S. Department of Education.

In January, a “Dear Colleague” letter was circulated to colleges nationwide that called for changes to sexual assault procedures in higher education.

Administrators say the mandated changes are aspirational and ultimately geared toward ensuring equality for both the accuser and the accused.

One of the biggest policy changes includes lowering the standard of proof from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “a preponderance of evidence” to determine guilt in sexual assault cases. That means a person can be found guilty of sexual assault by the Honor Court if he or she “more likely than not” committed the act.

UNC administrators have released interim procedures to bring current policies in line with the mandate. Sauls is heading the effort to revamp the procedures.

“It’s more than just writing a policy,” he said.

“To me, it’s less material what ultimately comes of the judicial process — our support is unconditional for any student.”

Currently, students have several options — on- and off-campus — to report sexual assaults, including the Dean of Students Office, Counseling and Wellness Services, the Department of Public Safety, and the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.

Depending on their comfort levels and how much information they wish to share, students can choose to make blind, anonymous or full reports to any of the access points.

Administrators said they hope to hire a single person to coordinate and streamline the reporting processes at all the different access points.

Last year, 43 cases of sexual assault were reported by students, highlighting a rising trend in reported assaults during the past three years.

Though the vast majority of assaults are student against student, Manning said very few victims choose to pursue disciplinary actions through the Honor Court.

“I think maybe one of those cases went through the Honor Court last year,” she said, adding that this is not unusual.

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Under the interim procedures, each assault case brought to the Honor Court is heard by a panel of faculty, staff and students that make up the University Hearings Board.

Both the accused and the accuser are appointed representation and allowed to present evidence. The Hearings Board then decides whether the accused is guilty or not guilty of the assault.

‘Reliving what happened’

Manning said victims might be deterred from prosecuting their cases through the Honor Court or criminal court because it forces them to continually repeat potentially traumatic details of their experiences to strangers.

“A lot of students feel like they would basically be forced to relive what happened and that could inhibit the healing process,” Manning said. “We want to empower the survivor as much as possible to make their own decisions about how to move forward.”

Sauls said he hopes to have a new procedure ready for the fall; and though policies will change, he stressed one element will remain central to the process — the victim will always come first.

Bob Pleasants, Campus Health interpersonal violence prevention coordinator, said he encourages students to focus their energies on prevention.

“We hope that we’re starting to see a shift on campus where students are more willing to act, more willing to care,” Pleasants said.

“We hope that over the years we’re able to change the campus community to make it more safe.”

Training and prevention

Pleasants works closely with training programs like HAVEN and One Act — prevention tools he said are invaluable catalysts for initiating conversation about sexual assault, especially in light of the complexities involved in the reporting procedure.

In the past 18 months, nearly 1,000 students have received One Act training and about 500 people a year are certified through HAVEN, Pleasants said.

Both programs strive to arm the campus community with the tools necessary to prevent and respond to sexual assault.

Manning said the popularity of the programs marks a tremendous shift in the campus culture surrounding sexual assault.

“When I first started here 10 years ago there was really small student group that talked about sexual assault — there wasn’t a HAVEN program, there wasn’t One Act. It wasn’t really talked about.

“So even in that time there’s been tremendous change.”

Pleasants said the goal of prevention is to reach students early so that they continue to support and advocate for victims.

“Now we’ve got football and basketball players willing to wear a 24-hour rape-free zone T-shirt,” he said. “It’s a small symbolic thing, but it still means a lot as far as how the dialogue is held on campus.”

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