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Task force debates definition of sexual assault

The University’s Sexual Assault Task Force is taking a measured approach as it attempts to bring clarity and accessibility to UNC’s Honor Code — but qualms about the power dynamics of the group have been raised.

“We are collecting the wisdom of the room as we go through,” said Christi Hurt, interim Title IX coordinator and chairwoman of the committee.

The task force met for the fourth time Wednesday to continue planning how to create a sexual assault policy that better suits all parties.

But Ann Penn, UNC’s equal opportunity officer, excused herself mid-meeting to allow the group to continue its discussion without her.

Terri Phoenix, director of the LGBTQ Center, said Penn’s presence represented a problematic power differential because her position involves running the office that will implement the policy and ultimately handle the task force’s recommendations.

After Penn left the meeting, the task force discussed how it would operate and come to a consensus in future meetings.

Hurt said Wednesday’s meeting was an important turning point for the group in turning power over to committee members.

Gina Smith, a sexual violence expert, focused in last week’s meeting on how to determine whether a sexual assault occurred.

Leslie Gomez, an attorney who specializes in sexual misconduct, said law enforcement and educational institutions define sexual assault differently.

The U.S. Department of Education has shifted the paradigm for universities to focus on whether consent was given, Smith said.

Gomez said if consent was not given, any form of sexual assault could be damaging.

She said UNC’s current policy defines sexual assault separately from sexual harassment and introduced the idea of a broader policy, which she said would provide an outlet for students to determine what they experienced and what their options are.

Karen Booth, associate professor of women’s and gender studies, raised concerns about the confusion that could result from such a policy.

She said sexual advances are often used as means of varying forms of discrimination.

“(Sexual assault and harassment) can be looked at together, but they are distinct legally,” she said.
She advised the group to be careful in wording the policy and warned against grouping all sexual misconduct as sexual assault.

Smith said questions like the one Booth raised are an important part of the discussion process because members represent all of the University’s interests.

“We are relying on you to fan out to the community and reach out to your constituency groups.”

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