Task force on sexual assault policy starts summer job

Task force on sexual assault policy starts summer job

Twenty-two members of the Carolina community have taken on a summer job to improve the way the University responds to sexual misconduct. The new Title IX Task Force, led by interim Title IX Coordinator Christi Hurt, met for the first time May 15 at the Friday Center.

The task force, which will specifically address student-on-student sexual misconduct, will build on the work done by a previous committee that revised the University policy in 2012 in response to new guidelines issued by the federal Department of Education. The task force is broadly based, including students, faculty, staff members specializing in this area and a community representative.

Appointed by Ann Penn, the University’s Equal Opportunity/ADA officer, the task force will meet nearly every week throughout the summer and present their recommendations to Penn in August.

Gina Maisto Smith, the consultant hired by the University to coordinate this process, set the stage for the task force’s work by reviewing the rapidly changing landscape of sexual assault issues on college campuses. Factors such as the federal guidelines from the 2011 Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights “Dear Colleague” letter, the case of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, the proliferation of social media and students who are speaking out about their experiences are bringing national attention to the topic, Smith said.

“You, UNC-Chapel Hill, are at the forefront of addressing this conversation,” she told the task force. “You are there and you are emerging as a national leader.”

The issue is further complicated, Smith said, by the very nature of college campuses. Not only do they have “perfect storm” conditions for the risk of sexual assault (young students coexisting in close proximity to each other, little or no adult supervision, access to alcohol and drugs, peer pressure, risk taking, etc.), but also campuses are ill-equipped to deal with the problem.

Administrators are not law enforcement officials, yet they have a federal obligation to investigate and respond to a category of sexual misconduct that would not be pursued by a prosecutor. They also have to balance a possible threat to campus safety and a complainant’s desire for confidentiality as well as federal regulations about reporting misconduct and keeping student information private.

“If they want confidentiality, then how can we proceed?” asked task force member Sandra Martin, professor of maternal and child health and associate dean for research at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“This is my response to that,” Smith said, turning around to bang her head against the wall.

Other task force members also expressed frustration, voicing a range of concerns: underreporting, the complexity of the process, confusion about the University’s role, the part certain campus groups play in the problem and how any process could be fair and balanced in the current environment.

Early in her presentation, Smith urged the task force to “embrace the tension” of the situation, and Hurt picked up on the theme two hours later at the meeting’s close.

“I see the tension as creative energy,” she told the group. “The points of difference mean we have the right people in the room.”