December 9, 2014: The issue of rape on campus is still in the news—and, unfortunately, still a reality for many women. In light of the ongoing conversation we're republishing this piece by Landen Gambill, who shares her experience of surviving sexual assault and taking on the university that failed to prosecute her assailant.
Before I started college three years ago, I had an idyllic image of what campus life would be like. I pictured myself growing, personally and academically, immersing myself in life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This year, I’m a senior, and I have certainly grown and changed — but not in ways I would have imagined. My college experience was hijacked by sexual violence.
In my first year, my relationship with my boyfriend got violent. We had begun seeing each other before I started college, and that's when the problems began — his behavior was often jealous and controlling. Once we were both on campus, it got worse. If he saw me talking to other guys, he would send me scores of harassing texts. He was emotionally and sexually abusive.
I never imagined I would stay with an abuser, but once I found myself in that situation, fear and shame held me back from leaving him immediately. He would apologize for his behavior and promise to change, while also saying I would be nothing without him. I tried to distance myself from him, but he stalked, harassed, and raped me, repeatedly. I knew he would never change, and one night in November of that first year, I told him we were done.
After the breakup, he still would not stay away. He'd show up inside my room and leave notes on my desk. And so, early in the second semester, I went to the Office of Student Affairs and reported him, asking for a no-contact order. I just wanted him to keep his distance. I told the school officials about my experience, including the sexual violence, and they granted the order. They also said I could file a report of harassment and sexual misconduct under the school Honor Code so that he would be punished.
The university dissuaded me from going to the police. Officials said that the criminal case could take years and that I could not pursue a campus case and a criminal case at the same time. I know now that this is not true. You can do both — report a rape on campus and go to the police. Under Title IX, the federal law that prevents sexual harassment and discrimination in education, schools must do their own investigation into reports of sexual assault on campus, independent of any police investigation.
I filed the Honor Code report for harassment and sexual misconduct. My abuser confessed to an administrator that he raped me, and he got suspended from school. The length of his suspension depended on his cooperation — it could have only been a few weeks — but, he refused to cooperate and the university determined he was a threat to my safety, so it was longer. An official hearing was set for that spring.
I was relieved that he was off campus, but I was still reeling emotionally, in a dark place. I was given a student representative, a senior undergraduate who clearly had no experience working with survivors of sexual violence. To my dismay, while managing my case, he gave some detailed notes I had written about my abusive relationship to my parents, without my consent. I never would have wanted them to see something so graphic and disturbing. It deeply upset them to read about my experience. The student rep said he “just thought they should know.”
In the spring of my first year, my abuser's hearing began before the University Hearings Board. Two students, two faculty members, and an administrator heard the case. I couldn’t believe students were involved in handling a report of severe sexual and emotional abuse. No one on the panel seemed to have experience with such a case. They heavily implied that a boyfriend could not rape his girlfriend and that staying in such a relationship equated to consenting to any and all sexual activity. They demanded to know why I hadn’t reported him sooner. Today, if someone said that to me, I would say: "How dare you blame me for what he did?" But, I was young and I trusted the university.
During the hearing, I testified via Skype, at the school's suggestion, so I didn't have to be in the same room as my abuser. What I didn't realize is what a disadvantage this would put me at — he sat in the room with the people deciding the case, allowing him to interact with them personally in ways I could not. When I got emotional during the hearing, I was told to stop because I was being "distracting," but he was allowed to cry. Some fellow students testified to his harassing behavior toward me, backing up my account. In addition, two people — his roommate as well as the school administrator — testified that he had confessed to rape. I was sure that with the sheer amount of evidence against him, he would be found guilty.
I was wrong. Instead, he was found not guilty of sexual misconduct, just guilty of harassment, a less serious infraction. When I heard the verdict, I was in shock and felt physically ill. It simply made no sense. I felt betrayed by the school I love.
That fall, I returned for my sophomore year with a sense of dread. I knew he would be back sometime that year. I didn’t want to transfer to another college because I didn’t want him to dictate where I went to school. I loved the campus, the town, and I had made a solid group of friends. I had begun pursuing women’s studies, meeting fellow students who had been through experiences like mine. I realized that I was not alone — there were extensive problems with the school's handling of reports of sexual assault.
I also learned that you can file a Title IX complaint with the government when schools mishandle reports of sexual violence. Later that semester, I got together with some fellow students and filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. An assistant dean of students joined us in the complaint — she said the school had encouraged her to under-report cases of sexual assault to the government. (Schools are required by law to report such crimes.) The university brought in a high-profile consultant to review its policies. The government began an investigation.
My abuser was back on campus spring semester. I'd moved out of the dorms, but was still on campus every day, and the thought of running into him made me feel paranoid and sick. School no longer felt safe for me; I felt a pervasive fear. I was always wondering: Is today the day I'm going to see him? One time, I was eating with a friend and my abuser sat down at a table near us, waiting until we were done, reminding me he was there. I missed a lot of classes because some days I just couldn’t cope. I felt haunted.
A few weeks later, I got an email from the university, saying I was being accused of an Honor Code violation myself. My abuser had filed a complaint saying I had created a hostile environment for him. The complaint was unfounded: I had never gone public with my abuser's name in any way. I couldn’t believe it. It meant I could possibly be expelled. I broke down, sobbing. It was another attempt at power and control on the part of my abuser — he had found yet another way to harass me — and the school was going along with it. I saw it as an act of retaliation from the university in response to my filing the federal complaint. The school denied that.
I filed a new complaint with the Office for Civil Rights. I also went to the local press to try to gain support. Meanwhile, my abuser gave an interview to the campus newspaper, saying he had been traumatized by the suspension. He failed to mention his confessions to rape or the fact that he was found responsible for harassing me. I told the paper that he was not the focus of my activism: I wanted the school to change how it handled cases of sexual and relationship violence.
I couldn’t handle the stress of all this, so I took the last few months of sophomore year off. Soon after, my story went national, with headlines blasting the news that I could get kicked out of school for talking about rape. TV news anchors came calling. I didn’t do those interviews, because I felt overwhelmed, but I talked to some other reporters; the positive media attention, along with the dedicated activism of other UNC students and the legal advocacy of my attorney, helped tremendously. The school dropped the charge against me in June.
After the summer, I was ready to go back to school. I accepted that my college experience was not going to be normal, if there is such a thing. I moved forward with the help of my friends and fellow survivors. But, it wasn't easy: He remained on campus, and depression loomed. Sometimes, I saw people looking at me, and I wondered if they were thinking, Oh, that’s the rape girl. I talked to therapists, but found it more helpful to talk to survivors. No one understands like they do. Your life is never quite the same after rape — you are on edge, even when it comes to little things, like Facebook requests from people who seem fake. You wonder: Could that be him?
Now, I’ve been back for a few months of my final year. I live off-campus and feel more free, although my abuser is still at the school. The university recently announced a new policy on handling reports of sexual violence. It’s a much better policy — students will no longer be involved in rape hearings, for starters — and I’m proud to have helped make it happen. But, it has been a difficult journey. I hope my story spurs other schools to review their policies and take reports of rape seriously. And, I hope it inspires students to speak out, too. I’m glad to see that President Obama launched a call to action to combat campus rape, although I wish his campaign put more responsibility in the hands of the power-holders — the university officials who have a disincentive to report crimes that tarnish a school's image.
The number of Title IX complaints against universities has grown in the past couple years — there are now some 55 schools under investigation by the government for sexual violence. The investigation into UNC is ongoing. It's powerful to see survivors connect and challenge institutions that need to do more to prevent sexual violence. But, I always try to be clear that those who speak out are not the only heroes: Many survivors are not able to speak up for legal reasons, or due to physical or emotional threats. Surviving in and of itself is heroic.
I'm looking forward to graduating. I thought, in college, I'd primarily learn in class, studying books and thinking about ideas and theories. I didn't know I'd also learn resilience. While it can be difficult to change things, especially when you take on a major institution, it's not impossible.
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