JMU Silent Protestors - new

JMU students protested against sexual violence outside of Wilson Hall in April. With school not in session, many have taken to social media to make their voices heard.

After facing stark criticism both on campus and through social media for its handling of recent sexual assault cases, JMU has begun taking steps toward addressing specific concerns brought forth by students. Dean of Students Josh Bacon believes there are many ways universities across the U.S., JMU included, can better protect those who’ve been sexually assaulted.

“I think we can get way better,” Bacon said. “I think we can get way, way better in how we address this issue and this crisis in higher education. We know the statistics, we know the extent of the problem. It’s in our country, it’s not just higher education.”

JMU has installed a new Title IX Task Force, which will be called the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Alliance. The group will be led by Vice President for Access and Enrollment Management Donna Harper and Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller with the goal of improving preventative measures and gathering a variety of perspectives on the issue.

Students first began protesting against the JMU Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices’ policies in April. Then-sophomore social work major Caroline Whitlow spoke out about her frustrations with her ongoing sexual assault case. Whitlow lost her case and its subsequent appeal but has since sparked a flood of social media posts criticizing the university for its handling of her case — as well as the cases of others.

JMU addressed the “social media allegations” in a statement Sunday, defending the university’s actions. According to the release, “the case being discussed on social media was handled appropriately by the university.” Overall, the responses to the statement on Twitter were mostly negative, with many students finding it to be insensitive to the issue.

In April, Whitlow joined three other students in forming a coalition named JMU Students Against Sexual Violence. The primary goals of the coalition were to set a time limit for the length of sexual assault cases, prohibit character statements of alleged attacks from being heard by the OSARP review board, require board members to be trained professionals in a relevant field and have students found guilty of sexual assault expelled immediately.

JMU Students Against Sexual Violence has since organized a silent protest on the Quad and produced a petition for its policy proposals. According to the coalition’s website, the petition has received over 1,800 signatures. Fourteen different JMU student organizations have also given their endorsements for the cause, including the Feminist Collective and Dukes for Life.

“So many people are behind … the policy changes that we want to see happen,” Whitlow said. “It’s definitely hopeful to have the story out there the way that I believe it needs to be told and that people are willing to push for a more positive future with cases like this.”

In response to these protests, Bacon agreed to meet with coalition organizers Anna Kaplan, a rising junior mathematics major, and Kiersten Kimm, a rising junior computer science major, in May. Both sides believe progress was made in that meeting toward establishing a foundation for policy changes. However, Kimm was skeptical that all their policy suggestions would be implemented.

“[JMU] has made it seem like they’re very progressive and open and mostly for the students, so I’m just waiting for them to actually follow through on it,” Kimm said. “I’m excited to see what they do.”

While she found Bacon to be receptive to most of their ideas, Kimm stressed it would be up to the students who feel passionate about the issue to make sure the proposals are heard by those with the ability to make changes. Although Bacon reasons there’ll need to be some “compromises needed to make them work,” he holds that the university is taking an active approach to combating the narrative that it doesn’t take sexual assault cases seriously.

“I think students who sexually assault someone and [students who] rape someone should no longer be in an institution; they should be expelled,” Bacon said. “I think we need to find those students to get their due process but if they raped or sexually assaulted someone, they should be expelled. I also think they should go through the criminal process as well if they did that.”

The Student Government Association announced Monday that it’d be submitting a proposal of amendments to the OSARP process. The proposal includes several of the expressed goals of JMU Students Against Sexual Violence. While the SGA doesn’t hold the power to enforce these policy decisions, Student Body President Jewel Hurt hopes to ensure the JMU community that the proposal will be heard by the Accountability Control Board before the end of the summer.

“I personally believe JMU has made some mistakes in the way it’s handled past sexual assault cases — and, sadly, we’re not the only university who has,” Hurt said in an email. “I think the first step in dealing with this issue is acknowledging that we need to do better. We have to come together and take a hard look at what has gone wrong and how we can update our policies to protect our students.”

On Monday, Kimm will be meeting with OSARP director Wendy Lushbaugh to reinforce the coalition’s goals and discuss ideas for educating the student body on the issue through workshops and passport events. Whitlow hopes her story will continue to reach new audiences and raise awareness beyond her years at JMU.

“This is definitely something that I’m going to keep fighting for,” Whitlow said. “I think that a lot of other students are going to keep fighting for it as well … It’s not going anywhere.”

Contact Matt Weyrich at breezeeditor@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

Editor-in-Chief

Matt Weyrich is the editor of The Breeze for the 2017-18 school year. He was previously sports editor, where he covered JMU football's National Championship run.