The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday November 28th

UNC released sexual assault records — what happens next?

DTH Photo Illustration depicting a person handing over 15 file folders.
Buy Photos DTH Photo Illustration depicting a person handing over 15 file folders.

In 2016, The Daily Tar Heel, along with several additional news organizations, entered a lawsuit against UNC for the release of records that document sexual assault at the University since 2007. 

On Thursday, 15 records were released.

Confidential support is available for those affected by sexual violence.

Four years later, what does the release of these records mean for UNC, and how can the data released be used to better understand the University’s response to sexual assault?

What does this mean for UNC? 

“One of the big questions that we had going into the lawsuit was, ‘Is UNC holding anyone accountable?' and I think the answer that we got yesterday was hardly anyone in all these years," said former DTH Editor-In-Chief Jane Wester.

Wester, who was working for the DTH when the lawsuit was filed, said that since 2016, dialogue surrounding sexual assault has improved with the rise of the #MeToo movement, as comfort in talking about this issue has increased.

“But in terms of transparency, it doesn't seem like they've improved,” Wester said. 

Anna Pogarcic, the current DTH editor-in-chief, said she was expecting more information to sift through, but she hopes the amount of records released will raise questions about the University and how it handles these instances.

“It’s no secret that sexual assault happens on this campus, but I think what is very secret is what happens after,” Pogarcic said.

Pogarcic said fighting for the records, filing a lawsuit and pushing UNC to release the records after the court ordered them to do so helped to fulfill the mission of holding the University accountable. But when looking at the records themselves, in terms of the University’s actions, she said they do fall short.

Hugh Stevens, the lawyer who represents the DTH Media Corp in the lawsuit, said he thought about how long and hard the University fought to prevent even the limited information released from getting out.

“It’s an important, precedent-setting outcome,” Stevens said. “And I hope it stands up for the future."

How can this data be interpreted? 

Michael Taffe, data editor for the DTH, gave insight on what can actually be concluded from the records released. 

Taffe said when he first opened the records, he thought it was the first part of many. But it later became clear that the 15 records represented the only people that UNC had sanctioned for sexual assault since 2007.

The Clery Act requires that higher education institutions report certain qualifying crimes that occur on campus. Since 2007, there have been over 200 reported cases of sex offenses at UNC, according to Clery Act data. 

"There's a question about why there were hundreds who were not punished," Taffe said.

Joel Curran, vice chancellor for university communications, said in a statement via UNC Media Relations that these 15 records represent individuals found responsible for "particular Title IX violations" — the responsive information pursuant to the original court order. 

"It is important to note that the University’s Title IX policy and process are mandated by the federal government and are separate and distinct from any criminal process," Curran said in the statement. 

Taffe identified three major takeaways from the data.

“The first is that, obviously this is a lower number of people sanctioned in the last 13 years than we were expecting,” Taffe said. “Especially after the campus climate survey, we know that a very high number of students at UNC claim to have been sexually assaulted in four years. So, only 15 students being sanctioned for that on campus in that last 13 years doesn’t match up with that at all.”

Taffe said this is partly due to the fact that many report sexual assaults without saying the name of who assaulted them. In even more cases, he said the person who was assaulted does not know who assaulted them, so they do not know the name of the perpetrator.

“The second thing I'd say is that these records also include the punishment for the 15, and there wasn't a whole lot of consistency in that,” Taffe said. 

Taffe said that, with this inconsistency, the question of how the University determines who gets what punishment is raised. 

“The third thing I think is the timeline of this,” Taffe said. “The original records request was in 2016. It took multiple appeals that UNC has put the DTH through to get these records. UNC has expended a lot of resources to prevent people from seeing their disciplinary practices for sexual assault.”

What’s next?

“I think the biggest things for us are trying to answer questions people have about, 'How is it possible that there are only 15 people who have been found responsible? What does it say about the University? What does it take for someone to be found responsible?'” Pogarcic said.

Pogarcic said the DTH wants to reach out to students so they can be included in this conversation because the policy and the records directly resulted from students' actions and will affect their daily lives. 

“The Daily Tar Heel is not in the business of putting anyone in danger,” Pogarcic said. “I understand, especially as our staff, we’re just starting out the year and a lot of us are all really early in our journalism careers, but we all understand and respect the weight of this story, the history of this case and also the history of Title IX and sexual assault activism amongst students on UNC’s campus.”

The DTH is in possession of the names of perpetrators on the records, Pogarcic said. 

She said if the DTH chooses to name a perpetrator, they will have thought critically about why this person should be named and will have done the due diligence of reaching out to that person and anyone else involved.

“We are not in the business of harming survivors, we are not in the business of betraying any survivor’s trust and we take the decision to name people very seriously,” Pogarcic said.

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