Believe Survivors: Why Universities Need to Take a Stand Against Sexual Assault
From the first days of orientation, I have been met with the sight of informational posters explaining what to do if you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault.
They’re everywhere. Mostly in women’s bathrooms and at least one on every floor of a building. I’m sure they’re in men’s bathrooms, too. They’re posted in each dorm room or suite. They tell us, whether we’re victims or know someone who is a victim, to report their attacker as soon as possible, that any names will remain anonymous, that the university will do everything in its power to help sexual assault and rape victims.
However, in the last few months, these “informational” fliers have become a joke. I tell all of my friends that if something should happen, to never ever go to the Honor Court. Instead, go straight to the police. Not the campus police. The actual police. I tell my friends this because I don’t want them to suffer the same injustices that many of my fellow students are speaking out against.
I am currently a first year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We’re known for our intense school pride, proud sporting of the true Carolina blue, stellar academics, and nail-biting sports. In the past few months, UNC has experienced an intense burst of national fame and it has nothing to do with basketball player James McAdoo. I’m talking about sexual assault.
Last December, Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning stepped down from her position after 11 years at Carolina. She spent years fighting for sexual assault victims, and says that her work was, “emotionally and psychologically” difficult. She cites her desire to spend more time with family as her reason for departure, but it has been suggested that she was forced to resign after speaking out against school officials who purposefully underreported sexual assault cases. In January, Manning and four other women (current and former UNC students) filed a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education. The story exploded after The Daily Tar Heel published this article, which received backlash from those who filed the complaint saying that the details published were “potentially harmful for [their] case.”
One of the women who filed the complaint is sophomore Landen Gambill. Since January, Gambill has made her story publically known. She was raped by her former boyfriend and eventually reported the abuse to the UNC Honor Court. As of August 2012, sexual assault is no longer in the Honor Court’s jurisdiction, but Gambill filed earlier that year and presented mounds of evidence that damned her abuser.
Somehow, he was found not guilty.
For the 2012-2013 school year, he somehow was placed in the dorm directly across from Gambill’s without her ever being informed by school officials. But this, all of this, was somehow hushed up. The campus only truly became informed of the situation after the DTH published its initial report. Then, in February, the situation got worse: Gambill, after speaking out against the university and her attacker, was slapped with an honor code violation. By telling her story and not naming her rapist, she somehow created a hostile environment for him on campus and was involved with “disruptive or intimidating behavior.”
The entire campus reaction: outrage.
As it very well should be.
Even though students run the Honor Court, they do have ties with university officials. The university claims that it cannot be held responsible for any violation Gambill is accused of, but I, and many others, believe that it should hold some accountability. How is it that a group of untrained, unqualified students are able to decide the fate of a fellow student without any input from the university?
For the past few months, I’ve closely followed this story. I honestly thought the university was helping victims, and that justice was always served. My naivety was shattered, but now I, too, am speaking out against sexual assault. Victim blaming needs to stop everywhere, not just at UNC. Officials need to be held accountable for what they’ve done. Policies need to be enforced. Absolutely NO university Honor Court should ever touch any sexual assault case – they should immediately be handed over to the police.
All of this talking, all of this discussion about sexual assault, has made it a huge part of campus life. Everywhere I walk, I see ‘intimidate rapists’ and ‘believe survivors’ plastered on walls and buildings. Our chancellor sent the entire student body, faculty, and staff an e-mail discussing his intention to fully cooperate with, and even welcome, a federal investigation. More than one federal government office is involved in the investigation into the sexual assault policies and practices that UNC has followed for years.
This is just a small step, but hopefully it will lead to bigger things. I have confidence that the government and UNC will take measures to ensure that this victim blaming will stop and justice will be served. These survivors have been through so much, and their bravery and strength has helped bring a dishonorable practice to light. I have confidence that the student body, myself included, will continue to rally for sexual assault victims. I have confidence that I will no longer feel unsafe walking back from a late night study session in the library, confidence that the university would support me should something (God forbid) ever happen to me.
With this confidence, and a bit of determination, we can see and make change happen across all college campuses.
UPDATE: As of March 27, Gambill’s hearing is suspended. Chancellor Thorp finally decided to take administrative action and put a halt to the hearing. Its completely outrageous that he let it go on this far, but hopefully he’ll continue to show some support to Gambill and the other victims.
Written by Kiana Fekette
All photos taken by Kiana Fekette for Feminspire.com