Standing amid many questions surrounding JMU’s answer to the coronavirus pandemic — which forced classes online and pushed students away from campus — is the university’s response to sexual misconduct policy violations. Right now, everything is day by day and case by case.
For senior public policy major Erin Coogan, who went through her own Title IX case, she said immediacy is the main issue. She said she’d like the university to publicly explain its planned course of action so students aren’t kept in the dark, waiting for answers.
“It’s been, like, several weeks now since we knew we weren’t going back immediately, so, like, what is the plan?” Coogan said.
In a March 13 tweet replying to a question from the Students Against Sexual Violence Twitter account, JMU Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller said, “Staff will be back in touch with the relevant students next week. This is a constantly evolving situation and we don’t have concrete answers yet but we will make sure those students are in touch with our teams.”
Since the university is open and continuing to offer services to students — mostly in remote formats — the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices, the Title IX office and Survivor Advocacy services are still open and operational. However, Jackie Hieber, assistant director for sexual violence prevention and survivor advocacy, said their services are shifting with the situation.
“Every office on campus is trying to adapt right now, and we’re just trying to stay on top of those changes and help students to know what they are and what they can expect with their cases moving forward, and just making sure that they know that they’re supported,” Hieber said.
Among those changes is a shift of some communications from a face-to-face format to online methods. Amy Sirocky-Meck, Title IX office director and coordinator, said that while the Title IX office is still “happy to set up [in-person] meetings with individuals,” there’s an understanding that some conversations and processes may have to move online due to many students’ departures from Harrisonburg.
Along with other factors such as internet access and availability, she said, a shift toward remote communication with students has opened up several questions about privacy across different technology platforms.
Communication over the internet can pose several security risks, and privacy rights guaranteed to reporting and responding parties in with sexual misconduct reports and cases complicate the matter further. Sirocky-Meck said one of the Title IX office’s goals is to mitigate those risks as much as possible.
“If we’re working with students who are in remote locations, then we would want to be very careful and very cautious about the technology that we used to connect with students because we obviously want to make sure that we are doing all we can to honor individual privacy,” Sirocky-Meck said.
Student privacy has been a question discussed not only in JMU’s student support services but in “the field of advocacy as a whole,” Hieber said. She said one difficulty with remote communication is that students’ current living situations may not be accommodating to their healing process.
“When a student reaches out to us, the first thing we’re gonna do is try to find a way that they will feel comfortable talking, given that a lot of students are home and, sometimes, either the harm is happening in the home or they’re not ready to tell their family yet, and they’re wanting to keep that private,” Hieber said. “And so, we want to help them find a way that they can honor those things while still being able to find the support that they can.”
Advocates are also able to accompany students to JMU’s Health Center or Sentara RMH Medical Center to assist them in receiving medical service. But that, like other forms of assistance Survivor Advocacy services can usually provide, has been disordered by increasing restrictions due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Because of Sentara RMH Medical Center’s current visitor restrictions on behalf of the coronavirus, Hieber said, advocates aren’t able to accompany students to the hospital as they usually are, but they can still offer in-person accompaniment services through the Health Center. Hieber said she’s “glad that resource is still there.”
“Those have been questions that have come up right now … of, ‘Are those still things that we can do? Are they still things that are safe for our students and for us as advocates?’” Hieber said.
Hieber acknowledged that while new restrictions and, for many students, the distance from the university can encumber the jobs of student support services, to the students who need assistance, continuity of service is crucial.
“Our hope is always that students wouldn’t have experienced anything in the first place, and so they wouldn’t need our services, but we know that students are experiencing sexual violence and dating violence and stalking and that they might need an advocate even during a time like this,” Hieber said. “So, we want to make sure that they know that they can still find us and that we’re available to them as long as they need us.”
Continuation is also a significant consideration for students who were in the midst of sexual misconduct cases when the university announced that classes would be held online for the rest of the semester and university housing would be closing.
Those decisions raised many questions about how sexual misconduct case reviews and other proceedings are handled now that many students have left Harrisonburg.
“The times that I was waiting for hearings and responses, that time is so horrible that I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, and especially the uncertainty of not knowing is really not good for people,” Coogan said.
Since each case is unique, Sirocky-Meck said, there’s no universal answer for how each one will be processed and handled. Instead, the Title IX office will be dealing with every case individually on account of what’s required in each situation.
“We would handle each issue on a case-by-case basis in terms of what the greatest needs are for the individuals who are involved,” Sirocky-Meck said. “We want to make sure that we’re always ensuring a fair and equitable process that is accessible to the parties that are involved.”
Interim university spokeswoman Caitlyn Read, speaking on behalf of OSARP, which handles sexual misconduct case reviews and adjudication, said active sexual misconduct cases are also being handled on an individual basis. She said “there’s no one new standard digital process,” but it “could include WebEx or Zoom.”
Additionally, she said, there’s no general ruling as to which cases will be proceeded with digitally and which will be postponed, citing the unique circumstances in each case as preventing any comprehensive decision-making.
In all sexual misconduct accountability processes, all participants — the reporting party, the responding party, witnesses and support persons — are provided a series of “rights, responsibilities and restrictions,” according to the JMU Student Handbook. Read said the necessity of meeting each of those for all parties involved would be a determining factor in the decision by OSARP to either postpone case reviews until the university returns to full operational status or to continue the process in an online manner.
“Many are going forward digitally,” Read said. “And then, ones that aren’t going forward are not going forward because there is a right or a responsibility that cannot be met using an online medium.”
Throughout OSARP, the Title IX office and Survivor Advocacy services, one answer remains constant: There are no constants. As each case — and each aspect of those cases — is considered and responded to on an individual basis, Hieber said, everyone involved will attempt to continue to adapt to each day’s changes to do their best to meet the needs of JMU students, in whatever form that may have to take.
“It’s unusual for everyone, and it’s an adjustment, and we’re just doing our best to support each other and support students and remember that, hopefully, it’s temporary, and at some point, we’ll return back to some sense of our old habits and at least being able to see people in person — that would be nice,” Hieber said.
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.