The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday January 22nd

Asking the tough questions

When I was asked to write a story in November about the University’s sexual assault policy, I never expected the topic to be something that I reported on more than once.

At the time, sexual assault was so far removed from my life — like many who have never dealt with the issue, I completely overlooked it.

It wasn’t until reporting that story that I realized I had tapped into a campus conversation that was long overdue.

It’s a conversation that’s taken us into the beginning of April. It’s also one that has no end in sight.

I think that’s a good thing.

People often ask me what it’s been like to cover sexual assault at UNC for the past four months.

The question has no easy answer. The months have been marked by oscillating feelings of sympathy, pride, frustration and confusion, among others.

I don’t think a reporter can — or ever will — be completely prepared to cover sexual assault.

Reporters are people, and at The Daily Tar Heel, reporters are also students. We’re members of the community that we report on, and we’re impacted as much as anyone else by what we hear and see.

I listened to sexual assault survivors who choked back tears when recounting painful details of their rapes and the way they suffered from UNC’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault.

I also heard the anguish of a male student who was accused of rape, and found not guilty by a University Hearings Board. He described an agonizing transition back into a community that allegedly tried to keep him out.

And I’ve heard the consternation of University administrators who have since grappled with how to build a sexual assault policy that both supports and empowers survivors, all while complying with federal regulations set by the U.S. Department of Education.

These interviews haven’t been easy. It’s undeniable that sexual assault is a delicate, emotionally charged issue. But just because the issue is sensitive doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it.

The paramount difficulty in talking about sexual assault is that the issue is caught in an eternal he-said, she-said cycle.

Did Landen Gambill’s ex-boyfriend sexually assault her? Was former Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning pressured to underreport cases of sexual assault? These are the questions that have largely dominated the headlines.

But similarly tough questions that address bigger issues affecting all of us still linger: Does the University maintain policies that give survivors the confidence and strength to report sexual assault? Are there procedures in place that are fair to both the victim and the accused? Is our campus culture open to acknowledging that rape happens?

The policies and culture that emerge from the answers to these questions will not only set precedents for survivors and complainants, but for all of those touched by the changes — namely, everyone.

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