News 13 Investigates: Sexual assaults on college campuses

The Clery Act requires higher education campuses to disclose campus crimes, among them, rape. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)

Sexual assaults are happening on college and university campuses across the mountains, but the numbers may not tell the whole story.

A News 13 investigation found the process to report these crimes also keeps some cases from being made public.

The problems News 13 exposed in the criminal system of low conviction rates and victims not following through also happen on college campuses. In at least one instance, students are calling for change.

“You want to start grabbing the teapots and start conditioning them," Makenzie Smith said.

Prepping the banquet room at Asheville–Buncombe Technical Community College is giving Smith, student manager of the day, some balance in finding a career.

“It's better if you can keep a little balance with the water glasses," Smith said, demonstrating for other student how to place water glasses on the table.

Smith is working toward a career in hospitality management.

“You're going to place it right above the knife and the spoon,” Smith continued instructing.

The career change happened after the transfer student found herself in a group she never imagined would include her.

“I knew college campus rape was a problem, but I just never thought it could happen to me,” Smith said.

It did, during her freshman year at UNC Asheville. Smith's voice recently joined a chorus of others on UNCA’s quad.

<="" sd-embed="">

“He knew exactly what he was doing, and he continued,” Smith said to the crowd of more than 100 students.

The students were calling attention to how UNCA handles sexual assaults and other Title IX issues. They want the university to be clear about its process for holding offenders accountable.

“There are posters around school, all over campus saying we don't support this in any way. And we don't support sexual violence and please come to the Title IX office,” Smith said.

Two federal laws deal with sexual violence on campuses. The Clery Act requires schools to disclose campus crimes, among them, rape. The other, Title IX, prohibits gender discrimination and is a civil process for students to report a sexual assault, harassment or misconduct, but those reports aren’t required to be made public.

Smith reported her assault to Title IX and campus police. She was assigned an advocate, the investigation began. A university's standard of proof is lower than criminal courts, but finding fault can still be difficult.

“When we respond to a complaint, that we go as far as we can based on the facts of the case and based on the truth and the facts, because we serve all students,” said Dr. Bill Haggard, UNCA vice chancellor for Student Affairs.

At Western Carolina University, of the 29 reports over three years, only one of the conduct cases resulted in an expulsion. WCU's Title IX coordinator Ivy Gibson and UNCA officials said it can be difficult for students to see the process through,

“They don't want to relive the trauma. They just, in some cases, simply never want to see this person again and want to move on with their lives,” Gibson said.

And uncovering how universities handle these cases is also tough. Campus police incident reports reveal few details. Schools blame red tape.

“We're limited by what we can share to the public by FERPA, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act,” Gibson said.

Still, campus numbers tell a story. In 2017, UNCA’s website showed four rapes on campus, but News 13 also uncovered the Title IX office got another four rape reports by students off campus. As Western Carolina's Title IX coordinator explained, these cases fall outside reporting requirements.

“It's only crimes that happen on campus or adjacent to campus,” Gibson said.

Also in 2017, UNCA's Title IX office received 22 sexual misconduct and another 24 sexual harassment reports, but campuses aren't required to publicly report those numbers.

Most cases are handled on campus, with, according to UNCA, less than 3 percent of its students choosing to involve law enforcement.

Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams said any student can also report to the Family Justice Center.

<="" sd-embed="">

“Our VOICE is co-located with other services, including law enforcement and the DA's office, to begin the process of getting to justice all under one roof,” Williams said.

His office doesn't classify cases by whether someone's a student. But after reviewing records, a few such cases were found. Williams along with other district attorneys across the mountains are hopeful victims are getting accurate information from wherever they report their assaults so they can make informed decisions.

“The process starts with victims understanding in our community that there's an infrastructure to support victims and to get them into this building and to foster that support and that relationship,” Williams said.

An agreement between Winston-Salem State University and the city police is an example the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys points as a best use of resources to help victims. It makes city police investigators the lead agency on any campus homicide or rape.

Title IX did provide leniency for Smith as she dealt with the ongoing investigation.

“They did give me extensions on exams, and I do appreciate that, and I was very distracted," she said.

But, with little evidence for investigators, Smith's case was closed with a no contact order for both parties, leaving her feeling unsafe.

“It's a very small campus. I would constantly see him in the dining hall, in one of the buildings for class,” said Smith, who ultimately transferred to another school.

Proposed changes by the U.S. Secretary of Education could require all sexual assault cases be reported to law enforcement in addition to Title IX, but advocates and schools worry that could reduce the number of cases reported at all.

It’s an issue News 13 continues to follow.

Want to find out the numbers on your campus? Plug your school into the national database found here ... CAMPUS SAFETY AND SECURITY.