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"They didn't seem to understand how abuse and assault happens and appeared unprepared to handle a case like this."

UNC and its Honor Court have failed sexual assault survivors 

The UNC Honor Court hearing in the sexual assault case of Landen Gambill began at 9 a.m. on May 2, 2012. During the hearing, which lasted for 24 hours over the next two days, Gambill's accused abuser sat in the same room with his student lawyer and a five-member jury in the Student and Academic Services Building. Yet Gambill had been placed across campus in Hanes Hall with her student lawyer, beamed in by Skype.

The accused, her ex-boyfriend, who has not been publicly identified, sat at a table with the jury, as did the witnesses who were there to testify on her behalf. On several occasions, after her ex-boyfriend broke down in tears, Gambill says she observed jury members reach out to him in expressions of comfort, and yet when she exhibited emotion, she was reprimanded: "Ms. Gambill, please don't show any emotion, it is distracting to the members of the court." She was questioned by panel members for more than three hours in a way that she says clearly showed they did not believe her.

"They asked me why I did not leave him sooner, or how I could have let the abuse go on," Gambill says. "They didn't seem to understand how abuse and assault happens and appeared unprepared to handle a case like this."

As the hearing progressed, Gambill says, her student lawyer was overly confident and waved off her suggestions to pose follow-up questions to witnesses.

Gambill's alleged abuser was found not guilty of sexual assault. Eight months later he filed his own complaint in the Honor Court, claiming that Gambill had created a "threatening and intimidating" environment for him by reporting the rape and for speaking out about the abuse, even though she never publicly identified him by name.

After the Honor Court charged Gambill with the offense, which carries with it the possibility of expulsion, many students and faculty protested, saying that the charge not only violated Gambill's free speech rights but was an act of retaliation against Gambill for speaking out about her rape and how UNC handled cases of sexual assault. The university responded by saying that the Honor Court's actions were out of its hands, because the court is student-run.

The UNC Honor System is a point of pride for the university. Established more than 130 years ago, it is a judicial process that hears and adjudicates cases of student misconduct. UNC students play the roles of attorneys general, lawyers and juries. However, the university's claim that it is student-run is inaccurate; three staff administrators coordinate its efforts, and its guidelines (known as the Instrument) state that, "The Chancellor remains solely responsible for all matters of student discipline." The university thus holds a fundamental responsibility; it cannot separate itself from the court.

On Jan. 16, two weeks before the Honor Court levied charges against her, Gambill had joined four women in filing an Office of Civil Rights (OCR) complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. It alleged that UNC practices violated Title IX federal laws that prohibit sex-based discrimination, including sexual violence, by mishandling sexual assault claims and failing to adequately train those who investigate and adjudicate cases. The OCR responded to the allegations by opening an investigation into the university and its practices.

Last week the OCR initiated another investigation into whether UNC violated federal laws by underreporting sexual assaults on campus. The new investigation responds to the complainants' allegations that the University Counsel's office pressured former Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning to underrerport sexual assault claims, and reduced the final number reported without her knowledge.

Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women's Law Center says that universities hold ultimate responsibility for adjudicating these cases. "Federal laws make it clear that colleges and universities can't just delegate away these sort of processes and then throw their hands up," says Goss Graves. "The university is responsible for the execution of the mechanism in place to make sure that harassment is appropriately addressed and that retaliation doesn't occur against people who file complaints."

In a statement released after the OCR complaint was filed, Chancellor Holden Thorp said what most universities say when faced with the unwelcome attention that these cases bring: "We're focused on the safety of our students, as well as faculty and staff, and have an obligation to do everything we can to provide the care and support they need if a sexual assault occurs."

But UNC's response to the Honor Court charge against Gambill deserves close scrutiny. "At UNC-Chapel Hill, the Honor Court is a student-run process," the official statement said. "The Student Attorneys General have the authority to make decisions about cases considered by the court independent of campus administrators."

The Gambill case has exposed UNC's lack of accountability, which is at the heart of the federal claim against the university. The UNC student complainants, all of whom are sexual-assault survivors, describe insensitive treatment by administrators, and reporting and judicial procedures that contribute to the revictimization of those who speak up.

Former assistant dean Manning is among the complainants. She resigned last year in the face of what she says was increasing resistance to her efforts to reform the university's sexual-assault procedures.

Gambill's case and the departure of Manning, who by many accounts was one of the university's greatest assets in dealing with the problem of sexual assault, provide a troubling portrait. Not only has UNC failed in the execution and oversight of its own judicial system, but it also has possibly violated federal laws that prohibit retaliation against students who report sexual assault while creating an environment where survivors don't feel safe to do so. In response to these claims, the university has deflected culpability by pointing to the overall "rape culture" within which it operates, shifting responsibility to a larger societal problem rather than addressing its role in perpetuating it. Yet the very definition of rape culture describes not the act of rape itself but the norms and practices that result in trivializing rape, blaming the victim and failing to punish perpetrators.

In February 2012, Gambill went to the university to get a no-contact order against her ex-boyfriend, whom she said sexually and emotionally abused her during their 16-month relationship and who continued to harass her after the relationship ended. The first person she spoke to was Erik Hunter, judicial programs officer in the Dean of Students Office and the administrator in charge of the Honor System. According to Gambill, Hunter expressed immediate concern for her and believed that the ex-boyfriend posed a serious threat to her safety. He issued a no-contact order and immediately referred the case to the Emergency Evaluation and Action Committee (EEAC), which evaluates students who could pose an immediate threat to others. The EEAC suspended the ex-boyfriend indefinitely, and within three days he was gone from the dorm where he and Gambill both lived.

Hunter also encouraged Gambill to pursue the case in the Honor Court. After filing her claim, Gambill was assigned a UNC senior as her counsel, or in Honor Court parlance, a "managing associate." When she told him she was considering filing criminal charges against her abuser, he reportedly told her that she could not do so while pursuing the case through the Honor Court.

The managing associate's advice violated federal law that says universities cannot dissuade complainants in campus-adjudication procedures from pursuing criminal charges at the same time. Worse for Gambill, though, was that she never felt he believed her. "It was important to me that he did," she says. "But he just kept telling me when I would ask that it was irrelevant to the case."

When Gambill made her complaint, UNC was revising its protocols in dealing with sexual assault as a result of new federal guidelines. Under the "interim" guidelines, Gambill's case would be heard not by a five-student court but by a five-person court made up of two students, two faculty and an administrator.

Even through Skype, Gambill could tell by the questions being asked that the panel doubted her. One member said, "Landen, as a woman, I know that if that had happened to me, I would have broken up with him the first time it happened. Will you explain to me why you didn't?"

Gambill also says that the Honor Court gained access to her health records and discovered that when she was still in the relationship with her ex-boyfriend, she sought treatment for depression and a suicide attempt that she says was directly related to the abuse. She says that the way she was questioned suggested that she was mentally unstable and thus her testimony suspect. "I felt like I was the one on trial," she says.

The proceedings of those hearings are not public record, and none of the court members who heard Gambill's case agreed to be interviewed. However, a member of the panel broke protocols of privacy by anonymously posting the following on a popular student website: "I saw almost no evidence to substantiate her [Gambill's] claims of abuse and rape. What we didn't hear was a pattern of abuse that she is now claiming to have been involved in. We did not see large bruises, signs of trauma or negligence from her body ... What we did see was an admission of clinical depression and paranoia, mental instability, and suicidal tendencies ... There was evidence that she harassed him ... by posting endlessly on her wall about her supposed abuse by him, and continued to do so through public discourse. One does not need a name to be smeared, slandered and libeled against."

Advocate Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, says that this mind-set and the questioning Gambill received suggest a deep lack of understanding by court members about what sexual violence actually looks like. "In college sexual assault cases, most of the time the victim and the offender are known to each other, so there are a lot of dynamics involved," says Kiss. "It is important that whoever is asking the questions and making these judgments understand those dynamics. Questions like, did you drink, why were you alone with him or get in a car with him, these are victim-blaming questions and are not setting the stage for a fair and equitable hearing. This is why Title IX requires training for those who hear these cases."

Melinda Manning believed deeply in the importance of sexual assault training for members of the Honor Court, and until 2006 she provided to Honor Court members an afternoon of training in conjunction with Duke University. However, according to the OCR complainants, those trainings were reduced significantly after Jonathan Sauls came on board as the judicial programs officer, a position he held before being promoted to his current position as dean of students.

According to Robert Barker, judicial programs coordinator for the Honor System and one of the three administrators who staff the program, Honor Court officers receive two days of training per year, which includes instruction on dealing with sexual assault. When pressed for details of the sexual assault training— who provided it, what it looked like, how long it lasted—Barker was unable to provide specifics. He initially agreed to allow INDY Week to review those training materials but he never provided them.

UNC's official response to the Office of Civil Rights cites two separate trainings for Honor System members, but according to Manning, those trainings lasted no more than an hour.

Honor System members also receive no training in common legal theories, even though the court acts as a quasi-legal body. "We are not a legal system, so we don't dive into any legal principles," Barker says. Instead, he says, they are trained in group dynamics, process and case investigation.

Several witnesses testified on Gambill's behalf, including a mutual friend of her and the accused. The friend testified that she witnessed him verbally abuse and act violently toward Gambill. Gambill's roommate testified to observing verbal abuse and that the accused would show up repeatedly at their room looking for Gambill. A number of witnesses, including Judicial Programs Officer Erik Hunter and the accused's roommate, also said that the ex-boyfriend had admitted to them that he had sexually assaulted Gambill.

John Gresham, the Charlotte lawyer representing the still-unnamed ex-boyfriend, did not attend the hearing but says that he believes that the panel "was a legitimate due-process procedure."

Asked about witness testimony that the ex-boyfriend had admitted that he sexually assaulted Gambill, Gresham says they misunderstood his client: "I think that there were witnesses who said that they believed that he was saying that. But I think they were just extrapolating from his statement." Gresham did not know who provided testimony on his client's behalf.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the Honor Court found Gambill's ex-boyfriend not guilty on charges of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Instead, it found him guilty of the lesser charge of verbal harassment. According to Gresham, the sanction given to the accused was that he have no contact, nor could he live in the same dorm, with Gambill.

A recent study by the Center for Public Integrity suggests that the verdict in Gambill's case is the norm. Perpetrators often receive not-guilty charges or charges of lesser crimes, and even students who are found "responsible" for sexual assault on campuses face few, if any, consequences. The Center interviewed 50 experts involved with campus disciplinary procedures and 33 female students who reported sexual assaults by other students. According to the study, little more than half of the 33 students said their alleged attackers were found responsible, often for lesser charges, and only four said that the judgments led to an expulsion.

Records from UNC for cases between 1997 and 2001 show that of the 88 sexual assault or harassment complaints made to the Honor System, only 22 of them—about a quarter—were ever charged by the court. Of those who were sanctioned, only three were expelled.

UNC student Khadija Mohamed's complaint against her ex-boyfriend also resulted in a not-guilty verdict. According to both Chapel Hill Police and UNC Campus Police reports, Mohamed alleged that after the relationship ended, her ex-boyfriend showed up at her dorm room at 4 a.m. and proceeded to verbally harass her, slap her, drag her around the apartment and pin her to the ground.

During her Honor Court hearing, witnesses presented testimony and documents that spoke to the abuse Mohamed suffered at the hands of the ex-boyfriend, but she says that she was repeatedly questioned as if she was not telling the truth. "Who would make up a story like that?" asks Mohamed. "I went through this process to seek justice, so that he would be held accountable for what he did to me. Why else would anyone subject themselves to this process?"

Although Gambill lost her case in Honor Court, when she returned to campus in fall 2012, she was relieved that her ex-boyfriend was not there. She began reaching out to other survivors, hearing their stories and sharing her own.

"The more people I talked to who had similar experiences and the more I learned about what was happening to other survivors at UNC, the more I felt I had a responsibility to speak out and change the culture," Gambill says. "I was tired of being on a university campus that tolerated calling sexual assault survivors liars."

Student advocacy against sexual assault had been brewing on the UNC campus for a while. Survivors were sharing stories about their mistreatment by administrators when reporting rapes or going through the Honor System. Across the country, the movement was growing as well: Students were using social media to connect campaigns to reform campus policies and share evidence of Title IX violations. Students were also energized by the federal government's renewed commitment to enforcing violations of Title IX. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education provided universities with new guidelines that reminded universities what Title IX requires in cases of sexual assault reports.

The guidelines, an 18-page document known as the "Dear Colleague" letter, clarify several important points, including that schools lower the burden of proof when deciding cases of abuse and requiring them to use a "preponderance of the evidence" (more likely than not that the sexual harassment or violence occurred) as the standard for proof in adjudicating sexual assault complaints.

It was in this environment that student Andrea Pino and alumnus Annie Clark began to write what would become their civil rights claim against UNC, alleging that they and dozens of other UNC rape survivors received insensitive treatment by administrators.

Pino says that after being raped at an off-campus party, she suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress, and when she went to an administrator seeking medical withdrawal from her classes, she was told that she was just "being lazy."

Clark was a first-year student when she was raped and says that when she went to report the assault, she was told by an administrator, "Rape is like football. If you look back on the game, and you're the quarterback, Annie ... is there anything you would have done differently?"

Joining them in filing the complaint was Gambill, an unnamed rape survivor and Melinda Manning, who had resigned just one month earlier. "I left because I was exhausted from fighting all the time and feeling like the university wasn't willing to make true changes on these issues," Manning says.

At the end of 2012, Gambill's ex-boyfriend successfully petitioned for readmittance to UNC. Despite earlier assurances that Gambill would be notified prior to his return to campus, it was only after Gambill's father repeatedly called Sauls in late December that she learned of his return.

On Jan. 4, she received a letter from Sauls informing her of this and also letting her know that under the terms of the no-contact order, her ex-boyfriend would be moved to a new dorm. That dorm turned out to be across the street from hers. When she complained to Sauls that this arrangement would put him near her, he explained that campus procedure required him to simply make sure her ex-boyfriend was not in the same dorm.

On Jan. 29, several weeks after filing the OCR claim, Gambill learned that her ex-boyfriend had filed an Honor Court claim against her. When she met with graduate student attorney general Elizabeth Ireland to inquire about the charge, Gambill asked whether the fact that she spoke out about her rape could lead to an Honor Code violation. According to Gambill, Ireland replied, "That sounds like a loaded question, but yes."

This answer raises several concerns. Since Ireland had the discretion to determine whether Gambill's ex-boyfriend's complaint should escalate into a charge, should she have decided the court should hear the case? Given his history and sanction for verbal harassment, could it also be construed that his claims of disparagement were another form of harassment? And is it disparagement and intimidation when a sexual assault survivor speaks out? On Feb. 20, Ireland notified Gambill she was being charged with the offense.

In a published email exchange with Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton regarding the charge against Gambill, UNC Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp wrote that he knew of "no circumstances where the good faith report of a rape would result in Honor Court charges," a statement that suggests Gambill's allegations of assault were made in bad faith, a troubling admission from a university claiming to take allegations of sexual assault seriously.

Henry Clay Turner, the lawyer representing Gambill, says the charges against his client "are inappropriate, unconstitutional and utterly without merit." This week, he filed a formal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights that the charge against Gambill was an act of retaliation for her speaking out about the assault and for filing a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. Turner said that the charge should be withdrawn.

Karen Booth, a UNC associate professor in the women's and gender studies department and a member of the Progressive Faculty Network, says UNC should have intervened on such a critical decision. "The chancellor holds ultimate authority for the Honor Court and the cases that go before it, and in cases where he believes the court has made errors, he can overrule it."

As a result of the new federal guidelines, the Honor Court no longer hears sexual assault cases. Instead, these cases will be heard by a Student Grievance Committee, a three-member panel composed of one administrator, one faculty member and one student.

But Tim Longest, a UNC student and co-founder of the gender violence awareness organization SAFER Carolina, says, "Regardless of who hears cases of sexual assault, until UNC administrators approach sexual violence from a perspective of justice and safety, of what the university community owes to survivors as students, and supplements that understanding with training and practices among adjudicators, there can be no justice for survivors."

Corrections: Melinda Manning used to provide to Honor Court members an afternoon of training (not a full day) in conjunction with Duke University. The UNC Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs is Winston (not Warren) Crisp.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Grade F."

  • "They didn't seem to understand how abuse and assault happens and appeared unprepared to handle a case like this."

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