University must not punish sexual assault victims

News sources have recently reported several cases of universities mishandling or covering up cases of sexual assault on their campuses. When universities refuse to take responsibility for the prevention of sexual assault on campuses, the school community suffers as a whole.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has now joined the ranks of universities that have mishandled cases of sexual assault.

UNC sophomore Landen Gambill braves the possibility of expulsion ­­­— because she claims that her ex-boyfriend raped her, sexually and verbally abused her, and stalked and threatened her after they broke up.

Gambill first came forward about her experiences as a sexual assault survivor last December, when she told the UNC newspaper The Tar Heel about how she had filed a complaint against her ex-boyfriend through the university. At the time, sexual assault complaints were handled by the Honor Court, a student group meant to handle violations of the university Honor Code. She told the newspaper that her complaint was egregiously mishandled, with the court using her history of depression — a result of the abuse she suffered — against her as a sign that she was too “emotionally unstable” to be believed.

About a month later, Gambill, several other students, and the university’s former assistant dean of students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office, alleging that the university had violated numerous federal mandates in the way it handled sexual assault cases.

Shortly after she filed the report, however, Gambill received an email from the Graduate & Professional Schools Student Attorney General Elizabeth Ireland, notifying her that she had been charged with an Honor Code violation by “intimidating” her rapist and “adversely” affecting his ability to participate in university life — simply because she had told news outlets about her experiences. She has never even publicly identified her ex-boyfriend by name, but Gambill says that at a preliminary Honor Court meeting, she was told that she could have violated the Honor Code simply by saying she was raped.

According to UNC, the university administration has played no part in these proceedings; in a statement it released last week, the university emphasized that the Honor Court is a student-administered process, and that “administrators may not encourage or prevent the Student Attorney Generals from filing charges in a specific case.” According to Gambill, however, an assistant dean actually helped her ex-boyfriend file the complaint with the Honor Court.

It is appalling enough that Gambill’s complaint was mishandled, but it is even more appalling that the university has decided to punish Gambill for coming forward about her experiences. Sexual assault is not only prevalent on college campuses — nearly one in four college women are victims of rape or attempted rape — but is also chronically underreported, according to a guide released by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

The DOJ estimates that fewer than 5 percent of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape report it the police, mostly due to the victim-blaming that occurs when a sexual assault survivor decides to report, as evidenced by Gambill’s case. The university should be focusing on protecting its students by promoting a safe campus community, rather than trying to protect its public image by silencing sexual assault survivors.

Carnegie Mellon is in the process of remodeling its own sexual assault policy, under the guidance of Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno. We are lucky to have an administration that is open to suggestions — in part through our increasingly common Town Halls — from students and faculty about policy changes. But if we at Carnegie Mellon can learn anything from Gambill’s horrible experiences and UNC’s mistakes, it is that we as a campus community need to be aware and supportive of the sexual assault survivors on our own campus.