On Feb. 25, University of North Carolina sophomore Landen Gambill received an e-mail from the school’s graduate student attorney general. The e-mail said the school was charging her with an honor code violation for “disruptive or intimidating behavior.” Gambill is part of a group of 68 UNC students filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that the school failed to protect their rights as survivors of sexual assault. This week, she received the e-mail after she talked publicly on campus about her own experience with rape. While the university maintains that the violation wasn’t in retaliation to the complaint, the application of the honor code in this case sends the wrong message. Universities must own up to the realities of sexual assault on college campuses, and discouraging students from speaking out will only serve to silence rape survivors.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, fewer than 5 percent of rapes involving college women are reported to law enforcement. The complaint filed to the OCR alleges that even when incidents were reported to campus authorities, the school fell flat assisting students afterward. Andrea Pino, a UNC junior who joined in the complaint, said the Academic Advising Office at UNC told her she was “being lazy” when she was having trouble going to classes after a sexual assault incident. While UNC does have a program intended to help survivors, it’s critical that the university ask appropriate questions when talking to students about rape. Furthermore, the complaint makes it clear that the university should widen its understanding of rape. Dismissing an assault because it happened between a couple, as alleged in the complaint, displays both an incredibly narrow grasp on the realities of sexual assault.
Unfortunately, stories like Gambill’s are becoming increasingly common. In October, Angie Epifano, a former student at Amherst College, claimed the school was unsympathetic after her own struggle with sexual assault. Epifano argued the college’s officials treated her as a problem, rather than a survivor, which compelled her to leave the school.
In response to Epifano’s article, Amherst’s president Carolyn Martin hosted a campus-wide talk about sexual assault. While this dialogue is a start, Amherst still hasn’t rectified its sexual assault policy. According to an article from The Amherst Student, students who commit sexual assault usually receive a two- to four-semester suspension as their punishment, while students caught stealing a laptop receive five semesters of suspension. While discussion is a critical first step, the conversation must lead to changes in how universities handle sexual assault.
Members of the University community must look internally and question how our own college handles sexual assault and survivor support. Through the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, students can receive support after assaults. But, in order to get students to take advantage of these resources, we must ensure that survivors feel safe talking about attacks. “I Will,” a recently launched student-led campaign, encourages the campus to discuss sexual assault.
It’s absolutely crucial that this conversation continues does not end with the academic year. Through regular discussion and reexamination of policies, that reality can change.