UNC says it has improved handling of sexual assault complaints

UNC Chapel Hill stock photo

(CNN) — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill admitted Friday its system for dealing with sexual assault accusations is “not perfect,” but said it not only is cooperating with a federal investigation but, “In fact, we welcome it.”

“Our response will show how the university has made significant changes in the past 18 months about how sexual assault complaints are handled,” university Chancellor Holden Thorp said in a campuswide e-mail distributed Friday morning.

The U.S. Department of Education opened the investigation at the request of women — current and former students along with a former administrator — who claim the university has long turned a blind eye to reports of rape and sexual violence.

Thorp encouraged students to continue discussions of sexual assault through an online suggestion box. “We must act promptly to thoroughly investigate and address any misconduct,” his e-mail said.

The government’s fact-finding mission comes amid outrage on campus and nationwide over intimidation charges filed in the school’s student-run honor court against a woman who said she was a victim of sexual assault.

Investigators from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will look into the women’s allegations that school administrators brushed aside concerns about sexual violence on campus and failed to adequately examine complaints of sexual assault, according to a March 1 letter sent to lead complainant Annie Clark by the agency.

Clark and other students named in this report agreed to be identified by CNN, which does not typically identify the victims of sexual assault.

In a separate complaint filed with the Education Department, the women say the school also violated federal laws requiring universities to fully disclose crimes on campus.

School administrators have disputed the cavalier attitude toward sexual assault alleged by the students, noting that the university has removed sexual violence cases from the list of concerns handled by the student honor court and appointed an administrator to deal directly with victims.

“We began making many of these changes long before the Office for Civil Rights complaint was filed several weeks ago,” Thorp’s e-mail stated. “In fact, much of this work is in response to guidelines and recommendations issued by the Office for Civil Rights to universities nationwide in 2011.”

Another of the complainants, Andrea Pino, said she hopes the case will spark a change in how all schools respond to complaints of sexual violence among students.

“I hope that this will serve as a wake-up call to not just UNC, but universities across the country,” she said. “The time has come for all survivors of sexual violence to demand change and justice.”

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