In honor of Sexual Assault Activism Month, on April 1, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, The Daily Tarheel, ran a cover story entitled, “RAPE IS A VIOLENT CRIME.” The article called for UNC Chapel Hill and universities across the nation to begin treating rape and sexual assault as the crimes that they are rather than as infractions of some amorphous campus honor code, and to start protecting and provide support to survivors rather than the perpetrators of sexual violence.
The article notes that until last year, the UNC Honor Court, a “quasi-judicial board made up entirely of students,”—which does not include the expertise of security officers, deans, faculty, legal professionals, or health professionals—heard and adjudicated cases of rape and sexual assault. The Honor Court stopped hearing these cases last year when the U.S. Department of Education issued the “Dear Colleague” letter, which included a set of guidelines regarding how institutions handle sexual assault cases to ensure policies and procedures are in alignment with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
UNC enacted the minimum requirements of the “Dear Colleague” letter, which included lowering the standard of proof required to determine guilt in sexual assault causes and the hiring of an individual to oversee the processes for determining guilt. But, according to The Daily Tarheel, the institution didn’t do enough in revising the university’s procedures and policies. For example, accusations of rape and sexual assault are still handled by an on campus organization—the Student Grievance Committee—that includes students and staff who are not required to be versed in how to address issues pertaining to rape and sexual assault. Primarily, the committee handles issues pertaining to harassment or discrimination.
The article outlines numerous ways UNC Chapel Hill could do better by its student body by enacting clearer and more comprehensive policies on how crimes of sexual violence are handled. For example, it calls on the institution to actively involve the Title IX coordinator in considering complaints of sexual assault, to involve local law enforcement in the investigation of rape and sexual assault accusations, to provide better primary and secondary prevention programs for students, educate on the consequences of rape, and to improve support services to survivors.
The article is also a call to action for institutions across the nation to evaluate and change the ways they handle accusations of sexual violence and support survivors. Rather than view the “Dear Colleague” letter and similar documents issued by federal or state governments as hurdles to overcome quickly, colleges and universities should view them as opportunities to bring together students, faculty, and staff to revisit their institution’s sexual assault policy and revise it in a manner that will provide comprehensive support and a clear path to justice for survivors.
SAFER stands in solidarity with the students of UNC Chapel Hill who are working to prevent sexual violence and to make their campus a more supportive environment for survivors. As shown in the results of the 2009 study “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio, campus judicial proceedings regarding allegations of sexual assault are often confusing, secretive, and plagued by lengthy delays, which only serves to exacerbate a survivor’s feeling of victimization. Sexual assault policies that outline clear paths to justice and provide comprehensive information on survivor services on or near campus empower the survivor to report their assault, provide survivors with a clear understanding of their rights, and shed light on the institution’s responsibilities when an allegation of sexual assault is made.
For more information on your institution’s sexual assault policy and ways you can make it more supportive of survivors, please visit SAFER’s Activist Resource Center.