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UNC Sexual Assault Victim Faces Punishment For Sharing Her Story

Zion Samuel |
March 1, 2013 | 10:13 a.m. PST


The students' treatment of their classmate's experience is abhorrent. (Rhonda, Creative Commons)
The students' treatment of their classmate's experience is abhorrent. (Rhonda, Creative Commons)
Preventing sexual assault has long been a major source of concern on college campuses throughout the country. From hiring private security to providing late night rides home, universities make campus safety a priority, and part of standard policy. But when prevention cannot be absolute, are universities properly handling the emotional and ethical fallout that comes from dealing with students who have become victims of sexual assault?

Last year, several universities were featured in the news for their inadequate responses to sexual assault: the University of Miami's response to a flier called "Top 10 Ways to Get Away with Rape" and Amherst College's response to a high profile case of alleged campus rape. In the latter example, Amherst clearly did not respond appropriately or even sympathetically to the rape victim's need for support and justice after another student violated both her body and her peace of mind.

Amherst officials, according to this student, did nothing to reestablish that peace of mind when they discouraged her attempts to talk about what happened, driving her to eventually leave Amherst and share her frustrations with her treatment by the university. 

Another student was similarly driven to share her story this past week at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill (UNC). But this student, Landon Gambill, faced opposition that did not come in the form of an apathetic or even hostile administration, but rather in the form of an unsympathetic student-run Honor Council.

After Landon Gambill publicly shared her story, she was informed that she was being charged with an Honor Code violation for what the UNC Honor Code calls "disruptive or intimidating behavior" against her rapist, although he was never publicly named by Gambill or anyone else. Before speaking out, it was through the Honor Court, rather than through the legal system, that Gambill, encouraged by the Honor Council, attempted to seek justice for the sexual assault. The Honor Council had relentlessly questioned Gambill, which had made her feel as though the Honor Council blamed her for what had happened to her.

Although Gambill felt that her trial was the administration's way of retaliating, responses from UNC officials have consistently explained that the Honor Council operates independently, and that the student attorneys general decide against whom charges will be brought - not the administration. Gambill, unlike the rape victim at Amherst, was being unfairly treated by her peers as well as the administration and staff.

Although the primcary "villain" of the story changed from the administration to the students on the Honor Council, the end results of the Amherst story and this one are the same. A student - a victim of sexual assault - is left feeling unsupported and even attacked by her school, and a rapist is essentially protected by the system.

The only consolation is that the same sexual assault expert, Gina M. Smith, was brought in to overhaul both schools' responses and improve their resources for sexual assault victims, but even that is a small victory. It seems to suggest that in order for college campuses to progress in this area, a student needs to be assaulted, tarred and feathered, and then victimized to the extent that her story becomes national news, and then Ms. Smith can come to clean up in the aftermath of disaster.

It is absolutely inexcusable that a university policy can be used to protect a rapist's right to attend school without being burdened by the discomfort caused by his victim's accusations. Does rape not qualify as a disruption of Landon Gambill's academic career? Is her attacker's discomfort more appalling than her emotional and physical suffering? The idea that both administrators and fellow students could treat someone in such a vulnerable position so callously constitutes a denial of her rights as a member of that community, and as a human being. Let's hope that it doesn't take yet another "news-worthy" sexual assault on campus to get schools to evaluate the systems they have in place before administrators and students re-victimize someone else.


Reach Contributor Zion Samuel here.



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