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UNC one of 86 universities under investigation for sexual violence

Student protesters from the "Carrying the Weight Together," a national effort to bring awareness to sexual assault injustice at colleges,  applaud speeches given at the Wainstein Rally.
Student protesters from the "Carrying the Weight Together," a national effort to bring awareness to sexual assault injustice at colleges, applaud speeches given at the Wainstein Rally.

On Wednesday, two dozen UNC students joined students at other universities in a national display of community solidarity against sexual and domestic violence called “Carry That Weight.”

The demonstration was inspired by a Columbia University student and sexual assault survivor who has committed to carrying a mattress around with her everywhere she goes on campus until her perpetrator is expelled or she graduates.

“We’re making a statement today that (survivors) don’t have to do it alone,” said senior Sarah Pederson. “People are here, and there’s going to be community accountability, and we’re going to work to have safer communities.”

UNC has three pending federal investigations into its compliance with Title IX, a 1972 federal law that protects students from discrimination or harassment on the basis of sex.

Since May, the number of Title IX sexual violence investigations at universities nationwide has jumped by 56.3 percent.

As of May, 55 schools, including UNC, were under investigation. But an updated list published Oct. 22 showed the number had increased to 86 institutions.

“We wouldn’t see these numbers if it were not for survivors being willing to publicly say what has been going on on their college campuses, and that’s pretty incredible,” said Anne Hedgepeth, government relations manager at the American Association of University Women.

Hedgepeth said the increase in Title IX investigations nationwide is due in large part to President Barack Obama’s administration and the Department of Education’s commitment in hearing students’ complaints and concerns about the way their universities handle reports of sexual violence.

The department on Oct. 20 published the final guidelines for campuses for implementing a set of changes made to the Clery Act in 2013. The Clery Act requires colleges and universities receiving federal financial aid funding to publish campus security policies and crime statistics and provide timely warnings about ongoing campus threats, among other mandates.

“These new rules require institutions to ensure that students and employees have vital information about crime on campus and the services and protections available to victims if a crime does occur,” said Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, in a statement.

Though the Clery Act and Title IX are separate laws enforced by the Department of Education, the two acts have, in tandem, made headlines for months as a nationwide push to improve response and prevention tactics for campus sexual assault crimes has continued to gain steam.

One of the Clery Act changes mandates that universities disclose the number of stalking and domestic or dating violence cases reported to the school.

Abigail Boyer, assistant executive director of programs at the Clery Center for Security On Campus, said the change also involves extending further rights to victims of these crimes.

The changes also emphasize prevention education in addition to response education and outline specific requirements for providing information in writing to survivors about their options and resources, she said.

“Institutions should really be proactive in making sure that people are aware of their rights and resources and that there’s really clear information on how to access all of these different elements,” Boyer said.

Though the changes do not officially go into effect until July 1, 2015, the Department of Education has asked institutions to go ahead and implement the changes as part of a “good faith” effort.

Howard Kallem, Title IX compliance coordinator at UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office, said in an email that while UNC has already put into effect many of the Clery Act revisions, the University is actively working to comply with the requirements it has not yet met.

Kallem said UNC has implemented regulations that include educating all students and employees on campus policies and the definition of consent and incorporating the definitions of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in the University’s annual security report.

The current status of UNC’s Title IX investigation is not known publicly.

The investigations can take years to resolve — both Harvard University Law School and Princeton University have had investigations pending since 2010.

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While the lengthy investigations show that campus sexual violence is not a new problem, Hedgepeth said the national attention the issue is receiving shows that progress is being made toward combating sexual violence.

“I hope that students — whether they are survivors or friends or part of the college community — will continue to keep the pressure on,” she said. “I hope that is part of what all this attention leads to.”