Five years ago, as a 20-year-old student with no legal training and no money to hire a lawyer, Andrea L. Pino knew she was facing an uphill battle in taking on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Frustrated over its response to her complaint of being raped at an off-campus party during her sophomore year, she had chosen an unusual weapon to force the university to acknowledge her.
Pino's gamble paid off last week when the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released its finding that the university had violated federal law--specifically, the civil-rights law known as Title IX--in its handling of five sexual-violence complaints, including hers.
She and Annie E. Clark, whom she had met through a student-activist network, were among four current and former students and an administrator who, in 2013, filed the complaints against the university.
At the time, Title IX was most commonly associated with equity in college sports, Pino says. But over the next few years, a growing network of activists joined her and Clark in trying it out as a tool to force change in colleges' handling of assault cases.
Encouraged by a 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter from the Obama administration's Education Department that urged colleges to investigate and resolve student reports of sexual misconduct, students filed dozens of Title IX complaints against their colleges.
During the five-year-long investigation of North Carolina, the civil-rights office reviewed more than 387 individual complaints of sexual violence filed from 2011 to 2016.
It determined that the university had "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, as required by Title IX."
From 2011 to 2013, some university staff members lacked the proper training to carry out campus procedures, the department said. That sometimes led to delays or inaction.
Inadequate record-keeping made it hard to tell just how bad the problem was, the letter added.
Investigators also reviewed complaints from 2014--when the sexual-misconduct policy was revised--to 2016, and found that in general, investigations were "adequate, reliable, and impartial." It was unclear, however, whether complaints were resolved in a reasonable time frame.
Under a resolution agreement signed on June 21 by North Carolina's chancellor, Carol L. Folt, the university didn't admit to violating the law. It did agree to review and, if necessary, revise its Title IX procedures to ensure that they are clearly explained and that all parties are notified of the status of their cases.
It will also beef up training for employees who receive and act on complaints and to improve the way it documents and follows up on reports. It also agreed to make clear that a dean, director, or department chair cannot reject investigative findings and recommendations for disciplining employees.
The university has until November 1 to provide the federal government with its revised Title IX policies and grievance procedures.
The civil-rights office acknowledged that the university "has already taken affirmative steps to improve its response to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence."
North Carolina has "been proactive regarding its efforts to maintain a campus environment free from discrimination, harassment, and related misconduct," including sexual violence, the office said.
Steps the university has taken include hiring additional staff members, improving training and prevention programs, and creating a website of resources for students.
'GO BEYOND COMPLIANCE'
Pino, one of the complainants, said in an interview that "to get that affirmation that what we said was true" was encouraging after having been told, as a student, that she was making things up.
But it was "discouraging that the university is still in violation of Title IX" five years after she filed her complaint, she said. "I hope UNC uses this to go beyond compliance and truly be a leader and inspire other universities before their students put them on national headlines."
Chancellor Folt said in a statement that the university was pleased that the investigation had concluded, and that it remained committed to further improvement.
"Nothing is more important to us than creating a culture at Carolina where every member of our campus community feels safe, supported and respected," she said.
During the five years since filing their complaint, Pino and Clark have traveled around the country, meeting with students and helping them file their own complaints.
They helped found the national advocacy group End Rape On Campus and told their stories in a provocative 2015 documentary about campus rape, The Hunting Ground. They also wrote a book, We Believe You, which is a collection of stories of sexual-assault survivors.
Now, they said, they feel vindicated. "Five years later, and at the heels of the #metoo movement and the 46th anniversary of Title IX, I am glad that our complaint pushed campus sexual assault and Title IX to the national agenda," Pino said in a written statement.
Clark said her alma mater "is certainly not the only school that has swept sexual violence and harassment under the rug. However, our students have learned from a great place of higher education, and because we have the knowledge, privilege, and power to do so, we have and continue to hold the university that we love accountable."