Students Say UNC Needs To Step Up To Prevent Sexual Assaults

Mar 2, 2020

UNC Chapel Hill law student Maya Weinstein is among the students advocating for the University to boost its investment in sexual assault prevention.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

About three thousand undergraduate women start their college careers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill each fall. By the time they graduate, nearly half are likely to experience sexual assault or misconduct. A quarter are likely to experience assaults that meet the definition of rape -- and that’s only the women.

 

Those numbers are based on the anonymous responses of college seniors at UNC-Chapel Hill who participated in the largest survey ever about sexual violence on college campuses.

 

As she walks through the heart of campus, UNC Chapel Hill law student Maya Weinstein imagines some of the students heading to class are in the same position she was seven years ago -- that right now some of them might be carrying the anxiety of a recent assault.

 

“Students are being assaulted on this and every campus,” Weinstein said. “Every student should be able to get their education free from violence.”

 

Weinstein wants the university to get better at dealing with this issue.

 

“I'm frustrated that seven years ago I was having these exact conversations about solving the problem of sexual violence on college campuses at a different institution,” Weinstein said.

 

Weinstein reported being raped by a fellow student, back when she was a first-year student at George Washington University.

 

“I was pushed out of conversations, forced out of rooms, encouraged to leave the university,” Weinstein said. “And at UNC, I feel that I'm being asked to sit in those rooms and to share my thoughts, and I just hope people listen.”

 

Latest Survey Sparks Renewed Focus On Prevention

 

In an anonymous survey from the Association of American Universities, one in five of the UNC-Chapel Hill respondents in 2019 said they'd experienced non-consensual sexual contact since entering the university. The rates were much higher for undergraduate women and trans students, and worse than the last time the survey was conducted in 2015.

The results point to a nationwide problem. More than 180,000 students at 33 universities participated in the survey, and on average they saw increases in reported sexual assault and misconduct between 2015 and 2019. The Association of American Universities cautions the increase could be attributed to more students who have been victimized choosing to participate in the survey, spurred by the #MeToo movement.

When those results were released last fall, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewiecz announced a new coalition focused on sexual assault prevention. Weinstein was asked to serve on a pre-coalition to form that group. While Weinstein appreciates that university administrators are inviting her to the conversation, she’s still frustrated.

 

“It's time to move past talking and start doing,” Weinstein said.

 

After joining the coalition, she discovered the university had formed one just like it in 2015 after the last troubling survey. That task force composed of university staff, faculty and students wrote a final report with recommendations in 2017 -- and in three years, none of them have come to fruition.

 

“So that says to me, we put these people in a room, we trusted them to tell us how to move the ball forward, and then we did nothing with it,” Weinstein said. “Now we're going to put this new committee together, and we're going to ask them for recommendations? How can you convince me that anything is going to come out of that?”

 

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Violence Prevention Efforts Declined In Recent Years

 

The 2017 report called for expanding existing workshops that teach students, faculty, and even local bartenders how to see the warning signs of sexual assault and intervene.

 

Three years later, the university has only one full-time staff person managing those workshops -- down from two -- and they've been training fewer and fewer students in recent years. The training for bartenders was canceled last semester; university staff cite a lack of student volunteers.

 

“My dream would be to have institutions really put their money where their mouth is in terms of hiring staff,” said Michelle Bangen of the Campus Advocacy and Prevention Professionals Association, a national organization. 

 

Bangen said she’s seen sexual violence prevention efforts fall off at a number of big universities.

 

“UNC is not alone in that. It doesn't mean it's okay,” Bangen said.

 

What UNC-Chapel Hill has done is to hire more trained staff in their Title IX office, where students can file formal complaints about sexual assaults. 

 

“We have seen a lot of schools hiring more and more Title IX coordinators and investigators. Really, for the sense, I feel like, in terms of trying to cover their butts in terms of compliance,” Bangen said.

 

While UNC-Chapel Hill has hired more staff for federal compliance, it lags behind some of its peer institutions in the areas of prevention and counseling for survivors. The university has seen turnover in these positions, and has recently been working to fill them.

 

Meanwhile, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan have closer to a dozen staff doing this work, housed in specific centers. Weinstein said that’s what she wants for UNC.

 

“No one comes in thinking I'm going to be sexually assaulted or I'm going to have a friend who’s sexually assaulted and because of that I need to know what the prevention strategies are and where to go if something happens,” Weinstein said.

 

Weinstein and other students are asking for a single, accessible place students can go to get help, with a senior level administrator running the show. 

 

Call for New Sexual Assault Prevention Office 

 

Weinstein also serves on the Campus Safety Commission, a group convened by Chancellor Guskiewicz. Weinstein announced the commission’s preliminary recommendations on sexual violence at a campus Summit on Safety and Belonging in January.

 

“To effect long term culture change, we request the placement of a strong institutional leader at the helm of holding the institution accountable to a longer 5-to-10 year strategic plan addressing prevention,” Weinstein said. “But we can't do it without people.”

 

The UNC Chapel Hill Campus Safety Commission recommends:

  • the creation of a senior level administrator to oversee violence prevention 
  • four new full time employees to run trainings on sexual assault prevention and awareness
  • requirements for all student-athletes and members of fraternities and sororities to attend the in-person trainings
  • new grant funding for violence prevention
  • the establishment of an interpersonal and sexual violence center

 

UNC Chapel Hill Commits New Funding To Sexual Assault Prevention

 

In response to Weinstein’s speech, Chancellor Guskiewicz gave an unexpected announcement.

 

“We are committed to this, we are going to invest in a senior level position,” Guskiewicz said.

 

Guskiewicz said he does not want to rely on assumptions that the number of students anonymously reporting assaults rose simply because of increased awareness due to the #MeToo movement.

 

"If we don't have the programming in place, the prevention initiatives in place and the personnel, the numbers are going to continue to climb for the wrong reason," Guskiewicz said.

 

Guskiewicz said UNC-Chapel Hill has already earmarked $2 million over the next 5 years for a senior level position -- like a vice chancellor -- focused on sexual assault prevention. The hope, university officials say, is that this position will lead the way to a new office on campus devoted to sexual violence.

 

The details are still forming. Becci Menghini is the Vice Chancellor for Human Resources and Equal Opportunity and Compliance. She'll help make the new investment come to life.

 

“I want to be clear, we don't know exactly what it looks like,” Menghini said, adding that the coalition of students, staff and faculty will help shape the outcome.

 

Menghini said the new money for prevention will help to "balance" the University’s previous investments in sexual assault response. 

 

“I also don't want to lose sight of the fact that student voices like Maya's have been really instrumental in leading us where we are today,” Menghini said.

 

Menghini said it was at the urging of students that the university hired more investigators and counselors to respond to students who report assaults. Next, the coalition that law student Maya Weinstein sits on will help craft a plan to prevent assaults from ever happening.

 

“There's been enough power behind it that I've been told this is going to happen, trust us, believe us,” Weinstein said. “And I really hope that I'm not let down.”

 

She and others will be watching and waiting.