Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill play a prominent role in judging sexual misconduct when it is reported. They serve a kind of quasi-judicial function which, in other circumstances, would be handled by workers in the criminal judicial system — police, prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers.
Their handling of sexual harassment complaints have come in for criticism that has led to a federal investigation. The university and students working in its judicial system are blamed for routinely mishandling sexual assault and harassment cases. They also are accused of systemic hostility towards victims of sexual misconduct.
The judicial system at UNC includes two students serving as attorneys general. Each of them is supported by a group of student investigators and prosecutors. Cases usually are heard by a team of student judges running honor courts. Those found guilty can appeal their decisions to student- and faculty-managed courts. Further appeals may then be made to administrators.
A number of current and former students and a former administrator in January filed a 34-page detailed complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. According to The New York Times, they said they interviewed hundreds of victims. In addition to describing cases of sexual assault and harassment, the group of students and the administrator claim to have proof of:
Chancellor of the university Holden Thorp told The New York Times he received a letter March 6 saying the U.S. civil rights office was looking into the complaints.
Former Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning, who resigned her job last December, was one of those filing the complaint. She said her bosses had pressed her to report fewer cases of misconduct on campus than there actually were.
Because of complaints about the student-managed system, the university established panels operated by students and administrators. An administrator was appointed to handle the new system. Another administrator was named to look into claims of harassment and assault. Gina Smith, a former prosecutor who has counseled other colleges with these same problems, was hired to advise UNC.
Just recently, another case has focused criticism on the university. A female student who accused her boyfriend of sexual assault in 2012 now faces charges of harassment. The boyfriend was suspended. But eventually he was found guilty simply of verbal harassment and allowed to return to the school.
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