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UNC asks honor court to suspend proceeding vs. student

By Mark Morgenstein, Jason Hanna and Vivian Kuo, CNN
updated 5:38 PM EDT, Tue March 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • UNC's chancellor asks student attorney general to suspend honor court proceeding
  • Chancellor's action comes after student accuses the University of North Carolina of retaliation
  • The student had accused an ex-boyfriend of rape; she's been taken to student honor court
  • Federal officials already are investigating the handling of sexual abuse complaints at UNC

(CNN) -- The chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is calling for the school's honor court to suspend proceedings against a student who says the university is retaliating against her for a sex-assault accusation.

The student is one of several who sparked a Department of Education investigation into how the university handles sex assault cases.

"For several weeks, the University has grappled with how best to respond to a public claim of retaliation against the University while maintaining the autonomy and integrity of our Honor Court proceedings and the privacy of the individuals involved, Chancellor Holden Thorp wrote Tuesday in an e-mail sent to UNC-Chapel Hill students.

Complaint: UNC retaliates in rape cases

"Recognizing the potential conflicts that may exist by allowing both processes to continue, we have asked the Student Attorney General to suspend the Honor Court proceeding pending an external review of these allegations of retaliation."

Thorp's e-mail was referring to the case of Landen Gambill, one of the UNC students who persuaded the Department of Education to investigate the school's handling of sex assault cases. She filed a new complaint of retaliation on Monday with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights.

Gambill's attorney, Henry Clay Turner, wrote a letter to Thorp saying Gambil believes the university was retaliating against her because it let the student-run honor court charge her with intimidating her ex-boyfriend, whom she had accused of rape,.

The letter asked Thorp to end the honor court prosecution, adding that although students operate the court, the chancellor had "the authority and the responsibility" to dismiss the charge.

The Education Department earlier this month opened its investigation at the request of current and former students as well as a former administrator. The department is looking into the women's allegations that school administrators brushed aside concerns about sexual violence on campus and failed to adequately investigate complaints of sexual assault.

The department also notified the university last week that it would review UNC's campus security reporting and whether its policies conformed to federal law. UNC said the reviews were expected and that it would cooperate fully with the investigation.

In an interview last week, Thorp told CNN that university policies follow federal law and that the school has worked to make sure everyone there knows how a sexual assault allegation will be handled -- "but the way we implement them can always continue to be improved."

In Tuesday's e-mail, Thorp told students, "Our ongoing conversation about sexual assault represents one of the most important issues I have faced at Carolina. And rightly so. It is clear that our students, both men and women, are passionate about this issue."

"I hear your concerns, and I share them," he said.

Later, he added, "We continue to look for additional ways we can address your concerns in a responsible and meaningful way. As we move forward, we will continue to seek your input and ideas."

The tension over sexual violence claims at UNC was on display in February, when the honor court charges against Gambill were made public. The court's student prosecutors had earlier declined to proceed with a case alleging honor code violations by Gambill's ex-boyfriend after she accused him of rape.

Gambill did not file a sexual assault report with police, and Gambill's ex-boyfriend -- who has not been identified publicly -- has denied her accusation, according to his attorney, John Gresham.

The man then asked the honor court to consider intimidation charges against Gambill, saying her accusations had negatively changed perceptions of him on campus and was making life difficult for him at school.

In a statement last month, Thorp said school officials had not encouraged the man to file a case against Gambill.

"This university works hard to encourage students to come forward and report instances of sexual violence," Thorp said in the statement. "No student has ever been disciplined for reporting a sexual assault or any honor code violation. Further, no university administrator filed or encouraged the filing of charges in this case; there is no retaliation by the university."

School administrators have disputed the cavalier attitude toward sexual assault alleged by the students, noting that UNC has removed sexual violence cases from the list of concerns handled by the school's honor court and appointed an administrator to deal directly with victims.

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