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UNC's handling of sexual assault: a process of change and correction

The 44 years since have seen countless changes and corrections to UNC’s system of handling reports of sexual assault on campus.

In 1989, amendments to the Code of Student Conduct made sexual assault an honor code violation. Students on the Honor Court would hear and determine the outcome of cases, while students in the student attorney general’s staff would prosecute and defend their classmates.

Students on the Honor Court received legal and psychological trauma reaction training from the Orange County Rape Crisis Center and Campus Health Services in order to properly deal with these cases.

When Melinda Manning began working as an assistant dean of students in 2001, she said, the training programs of the 90s were gone.

Although her formal role as assistant dean was to work with the graduate student honor system, Manning said she acted as an informal mentor for undergraduate women in the honor system because she was one of the few women in the office. She also helped coordinate a half-day training program for students from both UNC and Duke’s honor systems on how to proceed with sexual assault cases — trainings that ended in 2006.

When trainings started back up several years later, they were part of a larger training session instead of standalone sessions.

Jon McCay, the student attorney general from 2011 to 2012, said that although sexual assault cases were rare in the honor system, they were unlike any other student misconduct issue.

“There was a level of intensity and emotion involved you wouldn’t find in your student misconduct or academic integrity cases, which elevated both the skill and tax that were required on the part of the council,” McCay said.

Even when students were trained, Manning said she felt students were overall ill-equipped to deal with these cases. She said in some instances, survivors of sexual assault sat on hearing panels for sexual assault cases.

“It’s emotionally grueling,” she said. “I think it’s even harder when you’re 20 and it hits a little closer to home because you’re talking about your peers.”

Manning said she heard increasing calls from students to remove sexual assault cases from the Honor System before she left her position in 2012. But the biggest call for change came from the Department of Education.

In April 2011, the Department of Education issued its Dear Colleague Letter, reiterating schools’ obligations under Title IX.

Manning said the letter strongly implied that student honor systems making decisions about sexual assault on campus was inappropriate.

“College administrators read that and there was a collective, ‘Oh shit,’” Manning said. “None of us were in the clear — no school was in compliance, no one.”

“These cases are not appropriate for the honor system,” she said. “They never were, they never should have been.”

In response to the Dear Colleague Letter, UNC created an interim policy on sexual assault that ultimately relieved the Honor Court of its obligation to hear cases involving sexual assault.

Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has criticized the letter because it mandates a “preponderance of evidence” standard as opposed to the “clear and convincing” standard many universities had been using, lowering the threshold for the accused to be found responsible.

Under “preponderance of evidence,” even a 50.01 percent certainty can mean the accused is found responsible.

Cohn said having such a low threshold for conviction in an atmosphere that is very politicized leaves room for many errors, which can threaten the right to a fair process on both sides.

He said that ideally universities would fully dedicate their resources to the prevention and aftermath of sexual assault instead of adjudicating cases.

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But since they are responsible for adjudication, Cohn said, universities should make the process as fair as possible for both sides.

When Manning and four former students filed a complaint against UNC for its handling of sexual assault cases in early 2013, it became clear to students like 2013-2014 Student Body President Christy Lambden that the university needed to make a change.

As president, Lamdben worked with a student task force to recommend policy changes to the University, as well as the official task force that analyzed the interim policy, Title IX obligations and the Dear Colleague Letter to create UNC’s current policy, which took effect in August 2014.

“The definitions in the new policy are a lot clearer and more defined than they were in the old policy — they provide really set parameters,” Lambden said.

He said despite positive changes and more encouraging reporting numbers the University needs to continue to improve how it deals with sexual assault.

“I think the University is always looking to strive and improve and perfect the process,” he said. “I don’t think they would ever say they’ve got it completely right.”


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