Expelled for Speaking Out About Rape?
When a UNC student talked about rape on campus, she was told she was violating the school’s honor code.
Last February Landen Gambill decided to take action against her ex-boyfriend, who she says raped and stalked her throughout their long-term relationship. Now the 19-year-old is being threatened with possible expulsion from her college for creating an “intimidating” environment for her alleged abuser—and she’s gearing up to fight back.
Gambill was a freshman at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when she took her case to the school’s honor court—a judicial body made up of five undergraduates—trying to avoid the emotional toll of a criminal trial. At the time, she says, she hoped to simply get a no-contact order to keep her ex-boyfriend away from her. Instead, she says, she endured a hearing that spanned 28 hours, in which she claims she was grilled about why she didn’t leave her boyfriend sooner and was scolded for “showing emotion on her face.” Gambill says she was asked loaded questions like, “Why didn’t you break up with him?” and “Why didn’t you fight back harder?”
“I had really high expectations of UNC as a liberal university,” Gambill says. “[I thought] they were going to support me as a survivor and as someone who’s in a relationship with sexual abuse. I was totally let down.”
What’s worse, she says, a detailed account of the alleged abuse, which she had submitted as evidence, was given to her parents without her permission by a student representative—because, in Gambill’s words, he “ just thought they should know.”
A year after those hearings, Gambill’s case has seen even more twists and turns, and along the way it has galvanized a community of UNC sexual-assault survivors who contend that the university isn’t taking its students’ allegations of sexual abuse seriously. “This isn’t just about us as individuals, this is about us collectively as survivors, as people who have been mistreated by the university, and we’ve got to do something about it,” Gambill says of the nascent movement she has fostered using her social-media channels.
According to Gambill, the honor court also heard testimony from a UNC administrator and the alleged rapist’s roommate, who both said he had admitted to raping Gimball, as well as Gambill’s roommate, who testified that the ex would come by their room looking for Gambill at least seven times a day. The man was found not guilty of rape or sexual assault, but guilty of harassment. According to Gambill, he was given a letter of discipline on his transcript and was temporarily suspended as a precaution. (Gambill’s ex, whose name has not been made public, denied the charges in the hearing. A UNC spokesperson declined to comment on specifics of the case.)
A source within the office of the honor system, who asked not to be named, also declined to reveal specifics about this particular case, but says the honor court had gone through a three-hour training for sexual-assault cases that February, and confirmed that sharing confidential paperwork would be a violation of the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act.
“At no point did the court allow or did anyone try to introduce a question that was meant to embarrass, demean, or blame anyone in that room in any way,” a member of the panel told The Daily Tar Heel last month.
But the university has numbers against it. Infuriated by her treatment, Gambill joined on to a complaint being filed to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by three other alleged rape victims at UNC and former associate dean of students Melinda Manning on behalf of themselves and 64 other sexual-assault survivors. Manning, who had resigned a month earlier, alleges she was forced to underreport sexual-assault cases. The filing accuses the university of violating the Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights, the Clery Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and four equal-opportunity mandates.
The school immediately sought to dispel the allegations. Leslie Strohm, UNC’s vice chancellor and general counsel, said at a January board of trustees meeting, “The allegations with respect to the underreporting of sexual assault are false, they are untrue, and they are just plain wrong.” As of last August, the honor court stopped dealing with sexual-violence cases, and last month the university retained lawyer Gina Smith to guide handling of sexual-assault cases.
Gambill decided to join the advocacy group SAFER Carolina after her ordeal, and in January it held a press conference highlighting the rash of neglected cases of alleged abuse. The next day an email was waiting for Gambill from the honor system, alerting her that she may have broken its code. In a preliminary meeting last week, Gambill was told that her rapist had complained she was creating an intimidating environment for him and was disparaging him by speaking publicly about the school’s mistreatment of survivors, even though she has kept him anonymous. At the meeting she asked if publicly saying she was raped was a violation of the honor code. The answer was yes, Gambill says.
Last Friday, Gambill received an email that she would be charged with violating honor code Section II.C.1.c. for “Disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes with another ... so as to adversely affect their academic pursuits, opportunities for University employment, participation in University-sponsored extracurricular activities, or opportunities to benefit from other aspects of University Life.” She will have a second preliminary hearing this week to enter a plea; if found guilty, her punishment could range from community service to expulsion.
On Sunday night Gambill posted a frustrated Facebook status. “Friends and allies: It’s been a trying few months,” it began, and it went on to detail her recent experience. The post received hundreds of shares and prompted an #IStandWithLanden Twitter hashtag that quickly took off. She says the support has been overwhelming, but the pressures of the case have made her consider taking the term off from school.
“My experience is just one in a lot of survivors who have experienced mistreatment at the hands of the university who have been shamed, not believed, and who have been silenced,” she says. “I do want justice for my case, but more than that I want this to be a wake-up call for the university ... so no one else has to go through something like i have.”
Gambill struggles for reasons why the court is pursuing the case and thinks the only rationale is to scare her from speaking out against the school. “I haven’t been saying, ‘There’s this guy who abused me, and the university didn’t do anything about it,’” she says. “I’m saying, ‘This is how the university treats survivors, and it’s wrong.’ It really isn’t about him, so that’s another reason I think this is clearly a retaliation from the university.”
UNC declined to comment on case specifics due to privacy reasons, but in a statement released Tuesday said: “This University works hard to encourage students to come forward and report instances of sexual violence. 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.”
Gambill says she’s afraid of expulsion, but “can’t imagine a world in which they could do that.” She pauses. “But I also couldn’t imagine a world that could let him off as not guilty and could accuse me of violating the honor code.”