The department's Office for Civil Rights said in a March 1 letter that it has opened an investigation because it's determined that the office has jurisdiction and the complaint was filed in a timely manner. The letter advises that the investigation is not an indication that the Office of Civil Rights has determined the complaint has merit.
The letter said the complaint alleges four violations by the university, including that it didn't respond appropriately to concerns about sexual assault and didn't provide impartial investigations of sexual assault.
The complaint was brought by three students, a former student and a former assistant dean of students, all women, in January.
Among those who filed the complaint is junior Andrea Pino, 21. She said Wednesday that she's pleased the OCR will investigate because she and the others devoted so much time working on the complaint.
"I think it says a lot about the severity of our complaint," she said. "The contents of our complaint and the thorough research we put into everything carries a lot of weight. The students have made it clear that they have every intention of following through."
Pino has said the complaint includes reports from about 60 unidentified students who say they were victims of sexual assault at UNC-Chapel Hill. In addition to Pino, the other main complainants are sophomore Landen Gambill, former student Annie Clark, an unidentified student and Melinda Manning, former assistant dean of students.
"I am very glad that the Office of Civil Rights is taking our complaint seriously, and are going to pursue and investigation," said Clark to ABC11. "It's about a culture across this country, and I really hope by investigating UNC that people will start to come forward and that we will start to have a bigger picture and national change."
Gambill has been accused of violating the school's honor code by speaking out about her allegations that she was raped. The student-run honor court said she created an intimidating environment for the man she accused of raping her. The same honor court, whose proceedings are private, previously found the man not guilty in the assault, Gambill and her supporters have said.
UNC-CH officials confirmed they have received the OCR letter. The school will respond appropriately to the office's requests and cooperate fully, school spokeswoman Karen Moon said.
The women also have filed a complaint charging that the school under-reported sexual assault cases for 2010 in an annual report to the federal government on campus crime. The school's top lawyer told trustees that the accusation was false.
UNC-CH has hired Gina Smith, a nationally known expert on college sexual misconduct and a former prosecutor, to work on campus.