JMU Silent Protestors

Students sit in front of Wilson Hall protesting sexual assault. A sign in the crowd reads, "Boys will be held accountable for their actions".

In an email sent Wednesday afternoon, a JMU lawyer apologized to a student who accused the university of violating privacy laws in connection with her ongoing sexual assault case.

Sophomore social work major Caroline Whitlow went public about her experiences with the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices’ handling of her case. Her attorney argued the forwarding of an email she sent to a member of the accountability office was in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Susan Wheeler, senior assistant attorney general of the University Counsel, originally defended the university before apologizing for the dissemination of Whitlow’s email sent to Senior Assistant Director of OSARP Tammy Knott. Wheeler specifically mentioned The Breeze, asserting that the publication shouldn’t have been able to obtain the email.

“[Whitlow’s] message should not have been disclosed to the student newspaper by the university without her consent,” Wheeler wrote. “Immediate and appropriate steps are being taken to ensure that individuals involved with student educational records in such cases are reminded of their responsibilities to protect the privacy of these records.”

The apology didn’t specify how the email was obtained by faculty members from outside OSARP prior to being sent to The Breeze. The newspaper received permission from Whitlow to use her email in its stories, however, she didn’t approve of OSARP administrators forwarding the email to faculty members outside the office.

JMU’s Director of Communications and University Spokesperson Bill Wyatt explained in a statement how the university decides what’s of educational interest as outlined in the FERPA guidelines. He said the criteria is also provided to students each year.

“While the university takes very seriously its obligations to protect the privacy interests of its students, the institution is charged with making the determination of which of its officials have a ‘legitimate educational interest’ in the information contained in the records,” Wyatt said in an email. “JMU’s criteria for this decision is communicated to students each year in the catalogs under the heading ‘Confidentiality of Educational Records,’ as required by the U.S. Department of Education.”

Whitlow isn’t planning on pressing any charges on the university at this time. She believes the email Wheeler sent her attorney was vague, and points out the confusion surrounding what constitutes an educational record.

“This isn’t the battle that I was expecting to be fighting,” Whitlow said. “I don’t really think that it’s a win or a loss. I don’t think we should’ve had this issue in the first place of my privacy being violated.”

She was, however, grateful the university took steps to assure her its mistake was being rectified. Whitlow took part in a silent protest against sexual violence on the Quad on Friday. She aims to start a conversation between the university and students dissatisfied with OSARP’s current process.

“I’m thankful that the university counsel has reached out and apologized and stated that something was clearly wrong with that situation,” Whitlow said. “I appreciate that accountability and I wish we could see accountability like that across the board.”

Due to FERPA policy, the university can’t comment on the specifics of sexual assault cases. Wyatt published an op-ed in The Breeze on Thursday, explaining how JMU strives to provide resources for students who are victims of sexual assault or misconduct.

While Whitlow doesn’t believe she’ll be taking JMU to court, she hopes her efforts raise awareness about sexual misconduct on campus. She believes the OSARP process won't improve unless students and faculty hold an open dialogue.

“At the end of the day, all I want is peace with this,” Whitlow said. “I want my education back. I want to feel safe here again, because this is my home.”

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

Madisson served as news editor for The Breeze during the 2017-18 year. She graduated in May 2018 and now works at National Geographic in D.C. with Global Operations in post production.

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.