University response to media reports about sexual assault
Over the past few days, there have been media reports about a James Madison University student who filed a complaint under the university’s student judicial process involving an incident of sexual assault / harassment, and a subsequent complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on that topic. The external reporting has led some members of the JMU community to express their concern. We are concerned as well and appreciate the ongoing public discussion about the topic of sexual assault that is affecting college campuses across the country.
The University takes the issue of sexual assault/harassment very seriously, and will cooperate fully with the OCR investigation. It is an important and deeply troubling problem, and the public discourse should serve to bring focus to the topic. Due to legal / privacy requirements, there are limitations to what we can say publicly about a pending matter of this type. There are some important clarifications that need to be made, however, regarding the public discussion and media reporting on this matter:
- In this instance, it is important to note that the media has reported allegations of inappropriate touching that occurred on a spring break trip in Florida. Although allegations in the media do not involve rape, inappropriate touching is covered by the university’s sexual assault policy, and is taken very seriously.
- If filed with the University, complaints of sexual assault / harassment are handled under the University’s student judicial affairs process, which includes multiple levels of appeals. Students, faculty and staff are involved in these processes. These processes must of course protect the rights of complainants and the due process rights of accused students.
- The sanctions available under these processes are intended to reflect the facts and circumstances of a particular case as best they can be determined, and are premised on the University’s role as an educational institution. The facts matter and are carefully weighed in the process. Individuals who want to press criminal charges in cases of sexual assault may do so through the court system.
Also, it is important to note that under its own policies and procedures, OCR investigates all allegations that fit within the framework of the statutes it enforces. Accordingly, a list of over 60 institutions recently released by OCR indicates only that institutions have received such complaints. It is not a judgment on the legal merits of the complaints. As the assistant secretary for civil rights has emphasized, “a college or university’s appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.”
In May 2014, OCR issued new guidance on best practices in how to address such cases, which the University is currently analyzing (as are institutions across the country). The University is reviewing all of its policies and procedures in light of recent federal guidance, as well as evolving best practices nationally, to ensure that it is doing all it can to prevent and address issues of sexual harassment and assault. Additional training for faculty, staff and students (including additional “bystander” training for students to encourage bystanders to act in such circumstances) is being prepared for this coming academic year.
The University is committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for every member of the JMU community. We must strive to protect all of our students from sexual harassment and assault, and do everything in our power to promote a safe learning environment. We will continue our review of all of our policies, procedures, and support resources at the university.
JMU continues to be the caring and responsible place you all know and remember. In fact, we are very proud that this past semester JMU students took leadership roles in the local and national campus dialog.
- Students help shape White House efforts to prevent sexual assault
- Students team with nonprofit to promote sexual assault awareness
We continue to provide resources, enhance campus efforts and develop new support services to address issues of sexual assault and harassment.
The University realizes that campus resources and efforts do not fully solve the serious issue of sexual assault on college campuses or at JMU. However, we hope this in part informs and fosters an ongoing and productive discussion.
Finally, we understand and appreciate the concerns that have been expressed. Rest assured that as this process unfolds and is resolved, you will see that JMU handles such serious matters with integrity and compassion.