Public health crisis’: Why many UNC-CH sexual assaults go unreported

HEALTH; COMMUNITY NEWS

By Isabella Reilly
UNC Media Hub student Correspondent

In January 2022, a UNC-Chapel Hill student, who shared her story under the condition of anonymity, trudged through the freshly fallen snow alongside her friends. They were heading to Frat Court, the group of fraternity houses that lines South Columbia Street and West Cameron Avenue.

She was 18 and had little drinking experience, but it was wine night, so she didn’t see a problem indulging in a few red Solo cups. She was watching a football game on TV until one of the fraternity brothers began talking to her.

When she and one of her friends needed to use the bathroom, they asked if they could use his private one—hoping it would be cleaner than the urine-smelling, sticky-floored one downstairs. After they used his bathroom, they headed back downstairs for a little more wine.

She doesn’t remember how much time passed before she was back in the fraternity brother’s room for a second time. She doesn’t remember how it ended up being her and him, alone, music playing in the background of the dark room.

She does remember that she didn’t say yes. She does remember that she didn’t remove her own clothes. She does remember that she cried the whole way home, shamefully clutching her shoulders in the cold.

“I didn’t know how to classify it,” the student said. Four months later, she realized it was a sexual assault. But—like many victims—she never reported it.

During the 2021-2022 academic year, 72 informal reports of sexual assault against students were reported to the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office. That’s a 24% increase from the 58 reports filed the previous academic year.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story—an untold number of crimes go unreported every year.

Barriers to reporting

Though the student knows what happened to her was wrong, she said she never seriously considered reporting the crime.

“I was always very worried about having to defend it to someone or specifically telling him that what he did to me was scary,” the student said. “I was always worried about him saying, ‘No, that’s not how I remember it.’”

More than anything, she was afraid of not being believed.

Not being believed is the top reason college students may choose not to report their experiences of sexual assault, said Anushka Srinivasan, an executive director of Duke University’s sexual assault student advocacy group, SHAPE.

“It could feel really like a test, like, ‘Do people at this school really care about me?’” Srinivasan said. 

She added that the rumor mill is another reason many students choose to stay silent.

“You might be scared that it could get traced back to you, and with that could come retaliation,” she said. “(The perpetrator’s) friends could lash out in response and make your time really miserable and hard.”

Srinivasan said that in addition to potential social consequences, there are emotional barriers to undergoing the university reporting process.

“Putting in the time and effort to relive that trauma, to have to tell your story again, or spend hours trying to fight back the administration if you’re trying to get someone kicked out,” Srinivasan said, “that’s a lot of mental energy and time.”

UNC-CH alumna Savannah Bradley said she was assaulted twice during her time as a student.

“On my very first day of classes, back in August of 2018, another student in my lecture hall slid his hand under my skirt and tried grabbing my thigh,” Bradley wrote in her farewell column for The Daily Tar Heel. She added that four years later, on the first day of her senior year, a man inappropriately groped her on a Chapel Hill Transit bus.

“It was hard to get back on campus, and supremely difficult to just show up,” Bradley said, adding that she felt like she was simply “pushing through” her final months at UNC-CH.

But like the student, Bradley said she never reported either incident. When she visited campus Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) about the assaults, Bradley said that the option to file a formal report “wasn’t even mentioned.”

When she did look into reporting to the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office, Bradley said the process appeared “long and arduous.”

Investigating reported assaults

Elizabeth Hall, associate vice chancellor for the EOC at UNC-CH, said that there are several steps if a student decides to pursue a formal investigation through her office.

First, accusers meet with investigators for an interview and to determine the allegations. Both the accuser and the accused are then notified of the ongoing investigation and an evidence report is created.

It’s common for alleged assaults to happen without witnesses present, Hall said. In compiling the evidence report, Hall said it’s the job of EOC investigators to make a credibility assessment.

“We do that by considering, ‘Has either party made statements about this to other people, to the police, to other administrators on campus?’” Hall said. “… We’re looking for pieces of information that corroborate or call into question either party’s account.”

Following the evidence report, a hearing is held, and a decision is made in about 10 business days. Depending on the case, convicted perpetrators can face expulsion, definite or indefinite suspension, or probation, Hall said.

Perpetrators may also be required to comply with “corrective measures,” which Hall said could range from required consent and relationship training to removal from student housing or a permanent no-contact order. No-contact orders limit access to specific university areas or forms of contact with specific persons.

Hall said in total, investigations take about 90 business days from the time that the accused party is notified.

Erin Spandorf, media relations manager at UNC-CH, said EOC investigations are not automatically reported through UNC Police. Reporting parties must file a report with campus police separately if they wish to do so. 

Bradley said she believes the 90-day process is “not fair to the survivor.”

“There’s too much red tape, too much re-traumatizing happening,” Bradley said, adding that she was worried that pursuing an investigation would further interrupt her academic responsibilities.

Easing the process

Hall said that though the EOC can’t change some aspects of the reporting process in compliance with federal law, the office has tried to ease that process.

In 2014, the EOC introduced its first gender violence service coordinator to serve as an advocate and a support system for students affected by sexual misconduct. The university now has two gender violence service coordinators (GVSC).

Hall said that coordinators can join accusers in their initial meeting with the EOC, as well as in interviews with EOC investigators. Coordinators can also accompany students to their hearings and provide assistance with other related aspects, such as balancing academic workload.

“That’s a great institutional resource to have somebody who is confidential and there totally to provide emotional support,” Hall said.

The gender violence coordinator position was created not long after four former students and one former university employee submitted a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education in January 2013. The report alleged that UNC-CH failed to provide prompt and equitable resolutions to sexual harassment and sexual violence complaints.

Five years after the complaint was filed, the U.S. Department of Education found that the university had violated federal law in its handling of the complaints.

“When we first came forward, this was a very radical thing,” Andrea Pino, one of the former UNC-CH students who submitted the federal complaint after she was sexually assaulted on campus, told ABC11 in 2018. “I was 20 years old taking on a 200-year university and today I can say that I won.”

Holly Lovern, a gender violence services coordinator who joined the team in 2016, said she informs students of reporting options at the beginning of their conversations. She added that she offers students assistance in that process, but that students can contact the GVSC regardless of whether they wish to pursue a formal investigation.

Lovern also said that more students report campus assaults than people think, adding that for some, reporting doesn’t look like going through the full investigation process.

“I would say a trend over the past few years are folks in a space of, ‘Hey, I don’t know that I necessarily want to report for any kind of a formal response,’ or ‘I don’t want this other person to be aware or get in trouble, but I want my information documented,’” Lovern said. “So they may only be interested in filing the report and then the process stops there.”

Reconciling the numbers

Statistically, UNC-CH ranks higher than the national average for the prevalence of sexual assault cases.

Nationwide, one in five women are sexually assaulted in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. At UNC-CH, that number is one in three, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities. That statistic worsens with age. The survey reports that number rises to nearly half for those in their fourth year or higher.

But Lovern said she attributes that higher statistic to a “different reporting culture” than other universities.

“This is happening across all campuses,” Lovern said. “To me, us having higher numbers shows that hopefully, more people are coming forward, and they are getting help and seeking support.”

Sexual assaults on campus increased in 2022. Out of 29 reported rapes that year, 22 occurred on-campus. This is a steady increase from the 19 reported on-campus rapes in 2021, and 14 in 2020, according to UNC-CH’s annual security and fire safety report.

Accusations of fondling, defined as touching a person for sexual gratification without their consent, rose, too—24 total reports were filed in 2022, 20 occurring on-campus. That’s a 150% increase from the just eight reports in 2021.

That report, prepared by the UNC Police Department in collaboration with the EOC and other campus partners, is in compliance with the Clery Act. Sexual offenses subject to Clery reporting include rape, fondling, statutory rape and incest. Crimes must also occur within Clery geography to be subject to reporting.

But Clery’s numbers aren’t indicative of all sexual misconduct reported at UNC-CH. If students decide not to pursue a formal investigation or adjudication process after reporting to the EOC, that is recorded as an informal report.

Not all informal reports are subject to Clery reporting, said media relations manager Spandorf. The EOC’s annual report utilizes the policy on prohibited discrimination, harassment and related misconduct’s definition of sexual assault, which Spandorf said is broader than that of the Clery Act’s.

In 2021-2022, 117 informal reports accusing students of sexual harassment were filed—a 40% increase from 83 reports the previous year. That same year, 47 harassment reports were filed against university employees, a 42% increase from the 33 the year prior.

Sexual harassment is not a Clery-qualifying crime and is therefore not recorded in the annual security report. 

Preventive measures

Hall, EOC vice-chancellor, said that although campuses can’t completely eliminate instances of sexual misconduct, UNC-CH has implemented several preventive measures.

One of those measures, she said, is training modules assigned to all incoming first-year students. The required training defines affirmative consent and includes information on how to prevent sexual harassment and violence.

UNC-CH also offers HAVEN (Helping Advocates for Ending Violence Now) training to undergraduate and graduate students, staff and faculty. HAVEN focuses on training individuals to be an effective ally to those who have experienced sexual assault, interpersonal violence and stalking.

Hall said that there’s no timetable for seeking supportive resources from the EOC, and that students shouldn’t hesitate to visit their office.

“If it’s something that a reporting party wants to talk about and seek support for, it’s always worth coming to our office,” Hall said. “At a minimum, we have supportive measures.”

Alex Carrasquillo, public information officer for the Town of Chapel Hill, said that though he recommends students contact UNC Police for crimes committed on campus, victims of assault are always welcome to contact the Chapel Hill Police for support.

“We know victims may not always be ready to call 911 right away, so it’s important they know they can make that call at any time,” Carrasquillo said.

The university also offers some financial assistance to survivors. All students and postdoctoral candidates enrolled at UNC-CH during the time of their assault are eligible for consideration to receive funds from the Survivor’s Assistance Fund. These funds can be applied to costs related to post-assault medical care, including counseling services.

‘Public health crisis’

Former UNC-CH student Bradley said she believes the university’s current preventive measures are “not enough at all,” adding that the majority of students don’t take the school’s online training modules seriously.

“It feels very outdated,” Bradley said. “Reading a paragraph about consent doesn’t teach consent. It doesn’t stress consequences. It doesn’t stress what the process looks like if you’re a survivor or what resources are available, and how to move forward as a student.”

Bradley said she sees the growing number of sexual assaults on college campuses as a “public health crisis,” and wishes society could move past viewing the topic as taboo.

“If there was a virus that was causing one in three people to be suffering mentally, emotionally, physically and socially and fall behind in their classwork at any institution, alarm bells would go off,” Bradley said. “But the fact that it’s sexual assault, which is so pertinent and sweeping in our culture, and the fact that it’s happening primarily to women, is why people kind of pretend it doesn’t exist.”

As for the student who said she was assaulted by a fraternity brother, she wishes the university offered more education on understanding consent when alcohol is involved.

“I think we’re at a point where, if someone says no, then that means no,” the student said. “But I do think, ‘What happens if they don’t say yes?’ That’s still very up in the air, and I do wish there had been more conversation around that.”

She added that she also wished she knew more about alcohol safety. Before her assault, the student said she didn’t know that “drinking a Solo cup of wine is not the same as drinking a White Claw.”

Two years ago, when the student made her way to Frat Court, dragging her feet through the snow, she never could have predicted that one night out would forever change her life.

Entering her last year of college in the fall, the student, who has suffered with depression and anxiety since her assault, said her biggest fear is that this could happen again.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s one time and it’s going to end,” she said. “It always feels like next time, it will be worse.”


NC Media Hub is a collection of Hussman School of Media and Journalism students who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina. TLR is proud to support the UNC Media Hub student correspondents and photographers.

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