Brian H. Kildee is a communications consultant in Silver Spring, and Laura Jenkins Lemm is a human resources professional in Virginia Beach.
In 1994 we joined 40 other students one March afternoon in taking over Alumnae Hall at James Madison University. After months of urging university President Ronald Carrier to address sexual assault on campus, the Student Coalition Against Rape got his attention and the Harrisonburg, Va., school changed its policies. Twenty years later, it’s as though the promises made that spring have been forgotten.
Today, JMU again finds itself at the center of the debate over how institutions of higher education protect their students from sexual assault. The school’s recent mishandling of the sexual assault case of a former sophomore has demonstrated that, while administration officials acceded to some important policy changes, the underlying culture of callousness remains.
During a March 2013 spring break trip in Florida, the young woman said she was groped by three fellow students without her consent. She did not realize what had happened until the men began sharing a video with other JMU students. On the advice of her father, who is a police officer in a different jurisdiction, she pursued the school judicial option. No criminal charges were filed.
The university found the attackers guilty of sexual assault and expelled them. However, the sanction becomes effective only after they graduate, which means they won’t be allowed to participate in commencement exercises or return to campus. Two received their JMU diplomas this year; the third enters his senior year in the fall. Meanwhile, the process and woefully inadequate sanction took their toll on the woman, who dropped out of school.
We got involved with this issue, as many do, because it touched our lives. Holding a friend or relative who has been sexually assaulted as the horror of the experience comes out in uncontrolled sobs leaves a searing memory.
The changes our coalition proposed in 1994 were basic, including improvements in the judicial policy and the hiring of a full-time sexual assault education coordinator. Sexual assault was not even listed as a violation in the student handbook. Students who raped their peers were charged with the more innocuous “sexual misconduct” — a category that also applied to acts such as streaking or using lewd language.
More troubling than the school’s official, written policy was its unofficial practice. In interviews with many sexual assault survivors, male and female, student researchers documented a clear pattern: Rather than investigating charges of sexual assault to determine their validity, school officials waited for, and in some cases urged, the complaining students to leave JMU. This case suggests we are back where we started.
Unfortunately, JMU is not alone. Last month Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) released a set of “disturbing findings” about how universities deal with sexual assaults. Based on a nationwide survey, the report found that one-third of schools failed to provide basic training to individuals who adjudicated sexual assault cases.
Twenty-two percent of schools surveyed stated that they allow their athletic departments to handle sexual assault cases involving student-athletes. The report reveals a system that seems designed to discourage justice for the assaulted or protection for those who may be assaulted in the future.
As part of the renewed nationwide focus on this issue, the Education Department is investigating more than 60 schools to determine whether they are meeting federal Title IX requirements to protect students against gender discrimination. After learning about her attackers’ sanction, the former JMU student filed a complaint with the Education Department; JMU has since been added to the Education Department’s list.
JMU students have taken to social media outlets to express their outrage over the administration’s handling of this case. Thousands have signed an online petition. Many are directing their criticism at President Jonathan Alger, who — according to the student handbook — ultimately determines sanctions.
When Alger assumed office in July 2012, the university announced his intention to conduct “an extensive listening tour that will take him around the country to hear from JMU’s alumni and friends.” We hope he is listening to our plea for a return to decency and justice for victims of sexual assault on his campus. And we expect that the outcry from his students will not fall on deaf ears.