R., a survivor who wishes to remain anonymous, reported her sexual assault case to UNC’s Title IX office and did not get a resolution until almost a year later.
“It completely takes away your sense of control over your life,” she said. “Which is just a really horrible feeling.”
R.’s case was adjudicated under a procedure outlined in UNC’s two-year-old sexual assault policy, which was written after the federal government initiated a Title IX investigation at UNC. As students like R. experience the procedure firsthand, gaps in policy and practice have made moving forward that much harder.
According to UNC’s procedure, the entire process for an investigation and a hearing should take no more than 60 days. R. said her investigation took about triple that time, and the hearing process lasted almost half a year. She said hearing dates were repeatedly pushed back, often with little notice.
She could not get her life back and she did not have the chance to move on. She said she felt stuck.
R. said the process seemed poorly organized. She said her inbox is full of emails about extensions.
For her, it was very difficult to regain a sense of stability after her assault, and the lack of organization during the adjudication process did not help her situation.
“Part of the reason that I decided to go through this process in the first place was that I thought that it would take like a few months, like four months max, and then I would be able to move on with my life,” R. said.
R. said she felt her time was not respected and that the University doesn’t have realistic timelines for adjudicating reports of sexual violence.
“I know that compliance is really important,” she said. “But I want them to care as much about the impact they have on the campus community and the impact they have on the parties involved as much as they care about compliance.”
Paper, not practice
UNC’s two-year-old policy contains provisions defining consent, streamlining and advertising reporting and detailing adjudication procedures. The policy came with the launch of a new website, safe.unc.edu, which includes resources for victims of sexual assault.
Andrea Pino, co-founder of End Rape on Campus, a national advocacy group, said the task force that created the policy represented different areas of the community.
“They did a really good job, and in particular Christi Hurt did a very good job of convening the community and also being very transparent in putting it together,” Pino said. “It is very unique, and is not something that a lot of universities do, and that UNC had not done in the past.”
Pino said the policy was more comprehensive and transparent than policies of the past.
According to the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office, there was a 52 percent increase in formal investigations of sexual assault from the 2013-14 academic year to the 2014-15 year, after the implementation of the policy.
“Despite the policy itself being good on paper, I do think that it does struggle in its implementation,” Pino said.
Pino said the process remains complicated for students reporting sexual violence.
“It’s not a very connected and welcoming process,” Pino said. “It seems like it’s up to you to figure out what to do.”
Pino said problems with the process include access, the potential legal fees and a lack of resources to adequately handle the mental health needs of students on campus.
“It does seem like a very isolating process, because the University is struggling to keep up with how to handle sexual violence, which all universities are,” Pino said. “But I do think they could do more; they could do more to make the process a little more student-friendly.”
Katie Nolan, UNC’s interim Title IX compliance coordinator, said the University’s policy is, in many ways, ahead of the curve — but isn’t perfect.
Nolan said her office recognizes investigations are often slower than students would hope, but they try to add as much care to the process as possible.
She said there is room for more transparency in the timeline and progression of investigations, but compliance with federal guidelines can complicate the process.
A national issue
A White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault outlined 10 guidelines for universities in forming sexual violence policy, including defining consent, outlining the role of the Title IX coordinator and describing procedures and protocols for reporting.
Laura Palumbo, a spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said UNC’s policy addresses everything outlined by the task force.
“The policy is very comprehensive, and it’s covering a lot of the areas that have been causes of concern for many universities,” Palumbo said.
But UNC and other universities around the country have struggled with the implementation of these new policies and federal guidelines.
“I think that that implementation of the policy, even if a policy is well documented, that is where it becomes difficult to understand if the goal of the policy is being met in the campus process,” Palumbo said.
Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University, said universities might just be ignorant when it comes to adhering to the guidelines.
“I also think that in addition, there might have been some bad face why universities were struggling to comply,” she said. “Some either deliberate or less than conscious elevation of other priorities, like let’s protect the institution’s reputation.”
But Buzuvis said significant progress has been made since the Department of Education issued its Dear Colleague Letter in 2011, which provided universities with guidance on Title IX policies. In addition to the letter, she said that the attention garnered by national cases, including the one at UNC, led universities to understand the impact of ignoring the issue.
“That kind of snowballed into a critical mass,” Buzuvis said. “That put universities on notice that not only is this what you need to do to comply, this is what happens when you don’t comply.”
What’s at stake
R. said she sometimes regrets going through the process, but she hopes in the end it will help her heal.
“Even though I don’t think they did their jobs well and I don’t feel like they held him accountable, I feel like I can still say that I held him accountable to a certain degree,” she said.
Palumbo said universities like UNC that have had problems with handling sexual assault in the past also struggle to rebuild trust with students.
“I think a university’s past actions really do affect the level of confidence that students have in their resources on campus,” she said.
Anne Hedgepeth, senior government relations manager at the American Association of University Women, said that it is frustrating to see how long universities have taken to address sexual assault properly, given that Title IX has been in place for more than 40 years. She said schools have a responsibility to students to ensure that their policies are being implemented.
“I hope that whatever the gaps are at UNC that they are able to be resolved, because we know that it makes a difference for survivors in terms of their ability to stay in school and finish their education,” Hedgepeth said.