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Top university administrators forcefully denied allegations that they underreported sexual assault cases on campus, while stressing that they have been and will continue to try to attain justice for victims and prevent future assaults.
Chancellor Holden Thorp and General Counsel Leslie Strohm made their first direct public response to the complaint filed with the federal Office for Civil Rights by four alleged victims and a former assistant dean of students, Melinda Manning. The complaint claims that Manning was harassed into underreporting sexual assaults on campus and bullied when she raised questions about procedures. The alleged assault victims say they were pressured to drop their claims by university staff.
University officials say they have not seen the complaint but can only respond to the reports that appeared in The Daily Tar Heel, which has obtained a copy of the complaint.
Strohm presented evidence to the board that not only did the university not underreport sexual assault statistics in 2010, it actually reported seven more than Manning herself did.
Manning sent an email indicating 16 sexual assaults on and around campus that year; Strohm's office found and reported 23.
"All I know about the allegation is what I've read in the paper," Strohm said in her strongly worded statement. "We all know that allegations that are included on the front pages of a widely read paper do enduring damage. We also know if we think back that allegations, even when they're printed on the front pages of a widely read newspaper, can be false. The allegations with respect to underreporting of sexual assaults are false, they are untrue and they are just plain wrong. ... Some false allegations are the result of misunderstanding. Some are not. I fervently hope this is a case of misunderstanding."
Thorp pointed out that the university, for the last year, has been working to comply with new guidelines on handling sexual assaults handed down by the Office for Civil Rights and that there is a new policy in place. He said the university would work with OCR on this matter, if they deemed it warranted an investigation. He said an announcement on that could come in another month or so.
Over the weekend, Thorp called Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, the president of Amherst College, which is embroiled by similar claims of mishandling rape allegations made by students. Amherst hired Gina M. Smith, an attorney and an expert in adjudicating sexual assault claims on campus. Thorp announced that UNC would hire Smith as well, saying she would offer "excellent ideas and experience, perspective on what we're going through today."
"We feel good about the changes we've made this year and the deliberative process from which they originated, but we welcome all feedback and will work tirelessly to get this most important issue right at Carolina," Thorp said.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp, who is named in the complaint and accused of dissuading Manning from filing a grievance against a superior who she claimed was intimidating her, defended the work of his office.
"Sexual violence and other forms of violence are a real problem in our society, and they are no less a problem on this campus," he told the trustees. "And we absolutely have a responsibility to provide all the support and services for victims of sexual violence that we possibly can. At the same time, we have a huge responsibility to provide a fair and equitable adjudicative process for both sides of these issues. I take both of these responsibilities very seriously."
He got a vote of confidence from trustee Sallie Shupping-Russell.
"My family and I have very personal experience with this issue on campuses," she said. "And I have talked at length with Winston about what he's doing on this. I have never seen anyone more dedicated to solving this problem than Winston Crisp."