Federal officials to investigate retaliation complaint against UNC

jstancill@newsobserver.comJuly 9, 2013 

— UNC-Chapel Hill faces a third federal investigation related to sexual assault complaints.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will look into whether the university retaliated against a student, Landen Gambill, who joined with four other women to file a federal discrimination complaint against UNC-CH for its handling of sexual assault cases.

The government is already investigating that complaint, made in January, as well as the university’s reporting of sexual assaults under federal law governing campus crime statistics.

The Office for Civil Rights has said it would open a third probe, focused on Gambill’s allegation of retaliation. Gambill, who accused a fellow student of sexual assault, spoke out at rallies about the alleged rape and the university’s handling of her case. She was later charged with an honor court offense for intimidating the accused student, whom she did not name but identified as a former boyfriend.

The male student was found not guilty of sexual misconduct in a 2012 campus judicial hearing but was found responsible for verbal harassment of Gambill.

The student honor court action against Gambill, which could have led to her expulsion, prompted outrage against the university after widespread media attention.

An external investigator, a Rutgers University professor hired by UNC-CH, concluded there was no retaliation by the campus but suggested the honor code provision under which Gambill was charged would not withstand a constitutional challenge because of free speech issues.

Former Chancellor Holden Thorp dismissed the charge against Gambill last month and said other pending cases brought under the problematic provision would be dropped. A campus committee will review the provision. But that was not enough for federal officials, who opened the retaliation investigation anyway.

2 allegations in question

In a June 24 letter to Gambill’s lawyer, the Office for Civil Rights said it would look into two allegations:

• Whether the university retaliated against Gambill when the honor court charged her with “disruptive or intimidating behavior” against the male student by filing her original discrimination complaint.

• Whether the university retaliated against Gambill when it assigned the male student “to a dormitory in close proximity to (Gambill’s) dormitory after he was found to have sexually harassed (Gambill) and subjected to a no-contact order.”

John Gresham, the attorney for the male student, has argued that the 2012 verbal harassment conviction against the male student should be dropped, under the same constitutional rationale cited by Thorp. It’s unclear whether the male student’s record has been cleared.

A university spokeswoman, Karen Moon, said “the university is reviewing the matter and will cooperate fully with the OCR’s investigation.”

UNC search looms

Clay Turner, the attorney for Gambill, said the university’s contract with the external investigator, Barbara Lee, paid her $7,500, which did not allow for a full investigation of the retaliation complaint.

“I’ve been confident that the OCR was going to conduct a thorough and credible investigation, and I’m happy that that’s what they’ve taken up now,” said Gambill’s attorney Clay Turner.

As a new investigation gets under way, the university will be looking for a new administrator to head up the office overseeing discrimination complaints.

On June 26, Thorp announced the Aug. 1 retirement of Ann Penn, director of the university’s Equal Opportunity/ADA Office for the past seven years. Critics of the university’s sexual harassment and assault policy had called for an administrative review of Penn. A task force is working this summer to revamp the policy.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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