Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
As colleges respond to federal pressure to eliminate sexual assault on campus, they face a new challenge: what to do after a victim speaks out.
This week, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student said she was warned by the school's student-run Honor Court that she could be expelled for talking publicly about her allegations of being attacked by an ex-boyfriend. Some members of the Honor Court have received threats to their personal safety, Chancellor Holden Thorp said in a statement released Tuesday.
Sophomore Landen Gambill told local news outlets this week that the ex-boyfriend, whom she did not name, filed a complaint with the student-run Honor Court. The argument: that Gambill had created an "intimidating environment" for him when she recently spoke on campus, Gambill told WRAL.com.
No criminal charges were filed in connection with the alleged sexual assault. Gambill told The News & Observer in Raleigh that she was discouraged from going to police while pursuing a Honor Code proceeding. The ex-boyfriend was found not guilty during that proceeding.
Gambill is one of five people, including three students, one former student and one former administrator, who filed a federal complaint last month with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights alleging that the university is failing to support victims of sexual assault. Spokesman Jim Bradshaw says the allegations are being evaluated.
Colleges have drawn increasing scrutiny about their handling of sexual assault allegations since April 2011, when the Department of Education issued a set of guidelines for how they should respond. Its Office for Civil Rights said around that time that it would investigate a complaint that said Yale University allowed a sexually hostile climate to exist on campus. Last fall, in a settlement with Xavier University in Cincinnati, the Office for Civil Rights further clarified its expectations for how colleges should respond to allegations of sexual violence.
Last month, Amherst College released a report responding to a campus debate sparked last fall when former student Angie Epifano detailed in the student newspaper her challenges on campus as she sought help. One campus counselor advised her to forgive and forget, she wrote.
Gina Smith, a lawyer who has worked with Amherst and UNC on sexual misconduct issues, credits the victims of the sex abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University for elevating the conversation about how colleges handle troubling allegations. The recent twist in the controversy at Chapel Hill reflects the challenges victims face when they step forward. "Whenever you put yourself out there, you always take a risk," Smith says.
Among changes UNC-Chapel Hill has made in response to Education Department guidelines was to create a process for responding to sexual assault complaints. Since last August, sexual assault cases are no longer addressed through the Honor Court system. This year, the university launched a website to raise awareness of the issue on campus.
"We have a problem on our campus and we need to talk about it," Thorp wrote on the opening page. In a statement Tuesday, Thorp would not discuss specifics of any case involving the Honor Court but he said, "Here are the facts: This University works hard to encourage students to come forward and report instances of sexual violence. No student has ever been disciplined for reporting a sexual assault or any Honor Code violation. Further, no university administrator filed or encouraged the filing of charges in this case; there is no retaliation by the university."