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Sexual Assault Case Splits Campus, Prompts Federal Investigation

Landen Gambill
Dave DeWitt

When she decided to bring allegations of rape against a former boyfriend in the spring of 2012, UNC-Chapel Hill student LandenGambill had three options available to her. She could file charges with the UNC-Chapel Hill judicial system, she could file a civil lawsuit, or she could file a criminal complaint.

She chose the first option – to keep the case on-campus – and from the start of the investigation through the final verdict and up until the present day, she felt violated and betrayed by the system.

And now she’s fighting back.

“I have been treated with great injustice, but there are so many other survivors who have been treated just as poorly as I have and even worse,” Gambill told a crowd at a rally last Friday. “I have heard so many heartbreaking stories. Stories of survivors who have been blamed, shamed, ignored, and silenced by this university.”

Gambill is one of several students, a former student, and a former UNC administrator who filed a federal civil rights complaint against UNC-Chapel Hill. They say the university judicial system is deeply flawed, and that those involved routinely mishandle cases. The federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights says they will investigate the case.

“I refuse to step back and watch survivors be called crazy sluts and liars,” she said. “I refuse to accept that the way this university allows survivors to live in hell is inevitable. Rape is not inevitable but rapists can be comfortable on this campus. If not, I say that’s a step in the right direction.”

Gambill’s case made its way through the UNC-Chapel Hill judicial system at a time of transition. The University had just ended its policy of hearing sexual assault cases in its student honor court and had replaced it on an interim basis with a judicial panel made up of two students, two faculty members, and an administrator. The judicial panel also had a lower burden of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” of criminal courts.

When the interim judicial panel heard all of the evidence in the case, the group of three women and two men unanimously found the accused not guilty of sexual assault.

“It was a very thorough hearing,” said John Gresham, the accused student’s attorney. “I’ve had hearings before the administrative office of the court that were certainly no better conducted than this hearing board did.”

Gambill chose not to appeal the judicial panel’s decision, nor did she file a civil or criminal complaint. Gresham says his client, who has not been publicly named, had to withdraw from school. When he came back, Gambill began appearing at multiple public rallies referring to him as a “rapist” - and that led the former boyfriend to file an honor code complaint against her.

All of this serves to highlight just how difficult it is to fairly adjudicate sexual assault cases – especially in the cloistered environment of a college campus. The federal government requires universities to do so.

“Ultimately I want to get to a point where we can, as a community, be focused on this enough and talk about this enough that we can actually eradicate sexual violence from our campus and our community,” said says Winston Crisp, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill. “But as we’re striving for that we want to make sure that people have an opportunity to be heard but that we have a process that goes along with our policy that is balanced and can continue to grow and learn as we do.”

To help facilitate those conversations, UNC-Chapel Hill has hired an outside consultant, Gina Smith, who has worked with other campuses in similar turmoil over the issue of sexual assault.

Others will be involved as well, including incoming Senior Class President Christy Lambden, who hopes to bring a dispassionate analysis to a passionate debate.

“I think that people are getting wound up in individual cases and I think we need to widen the debate back up so that we are back considering the overall policy again,” said Lambden. “The biggest message and the biggest way we are going to look after UNC for future generations is by fixing the sexual assault policy.

Before the policy can be fixed, the Office of Civil Rights will determine what, if anything, is broken. In a statement released last night, the administration pledged that the University will fully cooperate with the federal investigation.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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