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Federal Office to Investigate Chapel Hill’s Handling of Sexual-Assault Complaints

The Office for Civil Rights, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, has notified the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that it will investigate a complaint filed in January by three students, a former student, and a former assistant dean of students, The News & Observer, a newspaper in Raleigh, reported.

Citing details of a letter from the federal office to the campus, the newspaper said the five women who filed the complaint allege that the university created a hostile climate for sexual-assault victims, thereby interfering with their education and violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal antidiscrimination law.

The complainants accuse the university of failing to appropriately respond to concerns of sexual harassment and sexual violence; of failing to conduct adequate and impartial investigations of such complaints, or failing to provide proper grievance procedures for them; and of failing to provide appropriate training for members of hearing committees and the residential-life staff.

A university spokeswoman, Karen Moon, said the university would “cooperate fully.”

University officials said they had not seen the complaint but take the issue of sexual assault seriously. The university has brought in Gina M. Smith, a lawyer in Philadelphia who works with colleges on sexual-misconduct policies, to review Chapel Hill’s policies and the campus climate on sexual-violence issues. Ms. Smith has also been speaking with students on the campus.

(Updated, 3:45 p.m., 3/7/2013) In a written statement released on Wednesday night, the university acknowledged receipt of the letter, in which a team leader with the federal office states that opening an investigation “in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to the merits of the complaint.” The statement also says that the university “will respond appropriately to the OCR’s request for information and cooperate fully with the investigation.”

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