Last Friday, University of North Carolina System President Tom Ross announced a campus security initiative to ensure sexual assault cases are properly investigated and prosecuted, and more broadly that serious campus crimes get the attention they deserve.
The move is tardy but welcome. It follows months of revelations and charges of mishandling sexual assault cases and underreporting of campus crimes generally. The U.S. Department of Education is probing some complaints, and the State Bureau of Investigation is looking into others.
The case of Elizabeth City State University student Katherine Lowe highlights why the UNC system needs to urgently and seriously address sexual assault on its campuses.
Last Monday, Lowe’s assailant, a former dorm security officer, was convicted of sexual battery, sexual assault and breaking and entering. But the conviction happened with little help from Elizabeth City University, a UNC system school. It happened in spite of the school.
Lowe testified that not only did campus police fail to investigate her complaint of sexual assault, she said college administrators pressured her to drop her complaint. Lowe finally reported the charges to the Elizabeth City Police Department. They arrested her assailant, Anthony Butler, in mid-April. During their probe, they found 126 campus crimes dating back to 2006 that had not been investigated. Among them were 17 reports of sexual assaults. In the fallout, the ECSU chancellor and the school’s police chief have stepped down.
Ross says the initiative he’s launching will look at “campus violence overall,” not just sexual assaults. That’s fine, but UNC officials must not gloss over the problem that brought them to this point. The system is in the glare of a national spotlight because of its failures to adequately tackle a serious crime – sexual assault.
Public allegations of UNC’s mishandling of sex crimes surfaced in a January Title IX sex discrimination complaint by five women. The women, including Melinda Manning, a former assistant dean of students at Chapel Hill, complained to the Office of Civil Rights that the university violated the rights of sexual assault victims and created a hostile environment for students who reported sexual assaults. Manning says the university pressured her into lowering the number of reported offenses, which UNC denies.
One of the women said she was raped by her ex-boyfriend, who was later exonerated by a student-led Honor Court. When she spoke publicly about the matter, she was charged with an Honor Court violation – charges that could have resulted in her expulsion. This month, the school did the right thing and dropped the charge. Officials also suspended the Honor Court provision that led to the charge – that no student can “disparage” another. The school acknowledged that the charge infringed on free-speech rights.
Having an Honor Court adjudicate sexual assault charges is wrong. Serious criminal allegations should always be handled by trained law enforcers. Students are just not equipped for the job.
But taking these crimes seriously is as critical as who should be investigating the crimes. Too often sexual assaults are not taken seriously. That’s the situation at universities nationwide, not just in the Carolinas. Complaints of colleges’ mishandling and failing to investigate sex assault cases, and discouraging victims from pursuing charges have cropped up at schools such as Yale, Dartmouth, Berkeley, Swarthmore and others.
We hope Ross’ initiative will be a serious one, and not simply a PR move to get the system out of a harsh spotlight. As one national campus security expert noted, what UNC does on this matter is being watched. This review must be done right.
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