College student from Miami fights for fair treatment of rape victims

 

jbrown@MiamiHerald.com

When Andrea Pino was accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010, it was the culmination of years of hope and hard work for the Miami native.

Pino is the first in her family to go to college and was among some 30,000 prospective students who applied in 2010. The nationally ranked university enrolls only about 4,000 new students each year.

“It was my dream school,’’ said Pino, a graduate of Miami’s International Studies Charter School.

But two years into her studies, Pino, 21, finds herself on the front lines in a national effort among students and parents to hold colleges and universities accountable for their treatment of rape victims.

In March 2012, Pino was at an off-campus party when a fellow student, whom she did not know, dragged her into a bathroom, pounded her head against the tile floor and raped her.

She filed a report with the university, but she told almost no one, except a handful of friends who dismissed her story and warned that no one would believe her. It’s not clear whether the university investigated her rape or reported it to local police.

The junior political science major is among five individuals, including a longtime assistant dean, who in January filed a federal civil rights complaint against the university. Among other things, they allege: that high-level administrators falsified rape statistics; that administrators created a hostile work and educational environment; and that rape victims often found themselves accused of lying or exaggerating.

Another complainant, Landen Gambill, drew national headlines last week when the sophomore said she was threatened by UNC administrators with expulsion after she spoke publicly about how she was treated under the school’s sexual misconduct policies.

Her situation has become a cause célèbre on blogs and websites devoted to women’s issues.

The university denies that it had anything to do with the charges, which are being investigated by the school’s student Honors Court.

UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon said the college’s outgoing chancellor, Holden Thorp, was not available for comment. Thorp announced his retirement in September, following several high-profile scandals involving school athletes accused of receiving improper benefits and academic advantages. He leaves in June.

Thorp did write an open letter to the students on the school’s website recently, vowing that the college is taking the issue of sexual abuse and violence seriously. A nationally recognized consultant has been hired by the university to evaluate its sexual misconduct policies.

“To perform their best academically,’’ Thorp wrote, “students need to feel secure and to know that resources are available to address their concerns. It’s a daunting responsibility to get right.’’

Gambill filed a complaint with UNC’s student-run Honors Court last spring, charging that her ex-boyfriend had attacked and raped her. The court, composed of undergraduates, is responsible for hearing misconduct complaints and sanctioning students who violate UNC policy.

Gambill’s former boyfriend was found not guilty during a trial that Gambill says forced her to relive her attack in graphic detail. Afterward, she spoke out against the university’s handling of the matter, prompting her boyfriend, who has not been identified, to file a complaint against her with the student court.

The university contends that no school official threatened Gambill with expulsion.

“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, however, said that university officials do have oversight of the student court, which no longer hears sexual assault cases.

On Friday, members of the campus community held a rally in support of Gambill, who is accused of creating an “intimidating environment” for her alleged rapist. A UNC official, in a letter, warned Gambill that she could face serious punishment for her actions, including expulsion.

“We hoped our university would listen and instead we’re faced with retaliation. We’ve been made into perpetrators,’’ said Pino, who attended the rally along with about 200 other students.

“Sexual assault is intolerable — at Carolina or anywhere else,” Thorp said late Friday in a statement to the local newspaper, The Chapel Hill News.

UNC, with approximately 30,000 students, is often referred to as a “Public Ivy.” In 2011, it was ranked by U.S. News & World Report fifth among the nation’s top public colleges and universities. Tuition is about $8,000 per year for residents and $29,000 for out-of-state residents.

Pino and former UNC student Annie Clark researched and wrote the federal complaint, which has been filed with the U.S. Department of Education.

In the complaint, Melinda Manning, the college’s former assistant dean of students, alleges that high-ranking administrators pressured her to doctor sexual assault statistics.

When she refused, she was punished, according to the complaint, which was obtained by UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. The newspaper reported that Manning, who had been at the college for two decades, complained that she was looked over for a promotion and received negative employee evaluations after she became vocal about UNC’s attempt to downgrade it’s rape statistics.

The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Manning, who resigned in December.

John Foubert, national president and founder of One In Four, a non-profit dedicated to rape prevention among college students, said the scandal at UNC is especially egregious because school administrators are accused of engaging in a systemic pattern of civil rights abuses.

“You don’t charge a woman who has been raped with some trumped up baloney, and that’s what they are doing,’’ Foubert said. “It’s revictimization at its utmost.’’

The news of Gambill’s predicament swept across the internet, prompting world headlines and national outrage. Pino and Clark wrote blog entries on the Huffington Post, detailing the actions of a university that seemed more worried about its image than protecting its students.

“Here you have some strong empowered women who have said we’re not going to be silenced,’’ said Foubert, whose organization’s name comes from the statistic that about 1 in 4 women have been sexually assaulted by the time they graduate from college.

The issue has led Pino to launch “The Courage Project,” an effort to put a face to a crime that historically has been cloaked in secrecy. The website ( www.courageproject.com) gives students and their loved ones a place to discuss the pain they’ve experienced as a result of sexual assault.

Though she was a resident assistant trained in interpersonal violence prevention, Pino said she was unprepared for the trauma that began to take over her world after she was raped. She transferred in and out of classes and began suffering panic attacks as a result of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“I was so distraught and so alone I was in more pain worrying about talking about it than just going forward. I feared the shame of telling administrators that I needed help,” Pino said.

She received counseling last fall and during the course of her recovery, she met other students who shared similar bad experiences with the university’s administration.

“These are felonies that are basically being treated as a slap on the wrist,’’ Pino said.

Police Chief Chris Blue said just 10 rapes were reported last year in Chapel Hill, a town of 55,000 that surrounds the university. UNC, which has it’s own campus police force, reported 12 rapes in 2011, down from 19 a year earlier.

“We know that it’s a grossly underreported crime because it’s difficult for victims to go through the investigative process,’’ Blue said.

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