More than five years after an administrator and four alumni filed a formal complaint, and after investigating 387 reports of sexual misconduct, the Department of Education has determined that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill failed survivors of sexual assault on its campus.
“The long-awaited UNC decision is important because it was the fourth high-profile case to be filed when campus activists launched the campaign to use federal Title IX complaints to raise awareness of the issue,” Dr. Caroline Heldman, who co-authored a piece on sexual assault and UNC in 2014 for Ms., observed. “As one of the early Title IX cases, it is good to see that justice has finally been served for survivors, albeit many years after they have graduated and left the campus.”
Andrea Pino is one of these early campus activists. After joining with other students to file a Title IX complaint against UNC, Pino gained national recognition for her activism after being featured in the 2015 campus sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground.
Now, Pino is hopeful that the Department of Education’s ultimate ruling in her case will send a message to young activists about the possibility of 20-year-old students being able to successfully challenge a 200-year-old university.
“When I came forward, I didn’t do it for myself. I always said from the beginning: ‘I’m filing this complaint for the class of 2020,'” Pino told Ms. “[Student survivors] don’t need a JD to be in a film. They don’t need to stand on the Oscar stage to believe that it happens. We did it, and anyone else can do it too.”
The Department’s investigation found that UNC failed “to adopt and publish grievance procedures that provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of student, employee and third-party complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of sex” and declared that it “was not prompt in accordance with best practices and federal guidelines, and that University faculty and staff… were not adequately trained.” UNC, however, has yet to admit fault or issue an apology.
Pino is unsurprised. “The best response I could ever get from UNC would be that they would continue to take sexual assault seriously,” she explained, “and continue to take it seriously without the Department of Education breathing down their neck.”
The Department of Education, under the direction of President Trump’s appointed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been working tirelessly to dismantle many of the policies on sexual assault that allowed survivors like Pino to demand justice from their administrations. DeVos has been explicit about her desire to undo the civil rights progress hard-won by advocates over the last century across the realm of education equity, and her department has rescinded key guidance on campus sexual assault which allows campuses to relax guidelines and evade accountability. (Feminist litigators are suing DeVos over the decision.)
Pino, who went on to found the national organization End Rape on Campus with her partner, Annie Clark, and now works at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, hopes that cases like hers move universities to see Title IX as more than a mandate to comply with—and instead as a key component of education access. This would require universities to recognize the impact that sexual assault often has on the education of survivors, who may transfer, change majors, take a semester off or even drop out of school after their assault.
“If students aren’t having that college experience that they are promised in brochures,” Pino asked, “how could they possibly have an equal access education, which is at the root of Title IX?”
As a queer survivor, Pino is also committed to expanding conversations around assault beyond an “archaic he said / she said” framework. “The oppressions that we face as already marginalized people are always further heightened when we experience sexual violence,” Pino said, adding that she hopes advocates will work in the future to “center marginalized folks more authentically, rather than as an afterthought”—and that universities, by thinking about sexual assault as a matter of educational access, will also begin to appoint people who understand these intersections to more campus positions.
Fortunately, Heldman says many schools are keeping Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assault in place—but she recommends activists take a deeper look at their administration’s practices and continue to put pressure on universities to adopt best practices around sexual misconduct, including implementing “a clear policy with specific sanctions listed, bystander training, electronic and anonymous reporting options, a timely and fair adjudication process, survivor-centered support services that are tailored for marginalized populations and strong sanctions to discourage sexual violence on campus.”
But although Pino has spent much of her time in the last years fighting sexual assault on the national stage, she wants all activists to know that their resistance is critical—at every level and in every moment. “You don’t have to be on the front lines all the time to be part of the movement,” she told Ms., stressing resilience over resistance in work around sexual violence—especially for those who often have to constantly relive their experiences when they engage in the activism. “Art is activism. Self-care is activism. Motherhood and fatherhood are activism,” she said, “Showing up means something to everybody. It’s about finding what’s okay for you.”
In the wake of the culmination of her high-profile challenge to campus rape culture, Pino most importantly wants survivors to know that the movement for their own justice still belongs to them.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect survivor,” Pino declared to Ms. “No matter what you drank that night. No matter who you slept with or didn’t sleep with. No matter how you identify. No matter what you were wearing. Who you didn’t hang out with or who you did. It wasn’t your fault. And if you’ve never heard it, I want to be the first person to tell you that I believe you.”