After a university disciplinary board found a JMU student’s alleged sexual attacker “not responsible,” the senior assistant director of the office that handled her case warned the accuser against going public about her disappointment, saying the accuser herself could face negative consequences if she spoke to the media.
Caroline Whitlow, a sophomore social work major, says the assault happened June 21, 2017, during a study abroad trip. After returning to Harrisonburg and running into her alleged attacker several times throughout the fall semester, Whitlow reported it to the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices in December 2017. On March 28, a hearing board found the accused, a fellow JMU student, not responsible.
Whitlow is in the process of appealing the original decision of “not responsible” made by an OSARP review board. In an email exchange between Whitlow and Tammy Knott, the senior assistant director of OSARP, Knott warned Whitlow not to disclose information regarding the case to the media.
Knott wrote that revealing details about the proceedings to the press could be considered interfering with the outcome of the case, citing student handbook policy J18-200. While that policy number doesn’t exist, J18-100 states, “No student shall engage in any activity which disrupts, unfairly influences or obstructs the Accountability, Honor Council, or Title IX processes at JMU.”
Citing federal privacy rules, Bill Wyatt, the director of communications and university spokesperson, declined to comment. According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, public universities are prohibited from commenting on any OSARP cases or specific students’ records.
“It’s not our policy that prohibits us from discussing OSARP cases, it’s a federal law,” Wyatt said in an email.
Despite the OSARP warning against publicly speaking about her case, Whitlow has spoken with BuzzFeed and The Breeze about the OSARP process and ruling of “not responsible” by the accountability board — a ruling that came, Whitlow says, despite testimony that she said “no” to sex twice during the incident. Several other students contacted Whitlow with similar experiences after she posted on her Facebook page about her disappointment with the hearing process. The post currently has over 500 reactions and 300 shares.
In telling Whitlow not to speak publicly about the case, Knott cited a policy that prohibits students from “attempting to influence, intimidate, or threaten any participant, witness, council, or board member in the reporting, preparation, adjudication, or resolution process of an Accountability, Honor Council, or Title IX process, proceeding, investigation, or resolution.”
Speaking to the media isn’t mentioned in the handbook policy. However, the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech, which includes speaking to the media. Mike Hiestand, a senior legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said there’s no legal justification for telling students they can’t speak to the press.
“This is starting to become a real problem,” Hiestand said in an email. “Schools are telling students that the law prohibits them from discussing how the university handles their claims. I don’t want to get [too] lawyerly on you, but our opinion at the SPLC is that this is bullshit. There is nothing in Title IX that we can find that requires/allows a school to effectively issue a gag order preventing a student complainant from telling his/her story.”
Looking back, Whitlow said she sensed OSARP didn’t want her to file the complaint. As Whitlow’s case adviser, Knott was responsible for explaining the OSARP review process to her. While Knott is required to remain neutral and didn’t play a role in the board’s decision, she allegedly told Whitlow multiple times she didn’t need to follow through with the charges, Whitlow said.
“I felt as if I was being discouraged from signing the document that made the case official,” Whitlow said in an email. “OSARP took every chance they had to remind me that I didn’t have to go through with it even though my mind had been set since December. I was disappointed because I thought university officials would want to create a safer atmosphere, but it seemed like they just wanted to brush it under the rug.”
Whitlow said she’s disappointed in the formal OSARP process, but she says both Knott and Title IX Coordinator Amy Sirocky-Meck have expressed disappointment to her for the outcome of “not responsible.” According to Whitlow, they “seemed to understand that the decision was not an ethical one.”
“[Knott] told me that she was still proud of me for speaking up for myself and for facing him, and she actually cried,” Whitlow said. “It was emotional, and I could tell that she cared deeply.”
Neither Knott nor Sirocky-Meck could comment on the case due to federal student privacy rules.
Whitlow’s appeal could result in OSARP overturning its original decision. However, once a final decision is made, a second appeal won’t be granted.
“Even the parts of my case handled according to policy were inefficient and re-traumatizing due to the policies themselves,” Whitlow said. “When I look back on my semester, pretty much all I’m going to remember is this.”
[e.d. note]: Typically, The Breeze’s policy for sexual assault cases is to not name the alleged victim. However, Whitlow gave the paper permission to use her name after sharing her story on Facebook.
CORRECTION (11:12 a.m.): A previous version of this article stated that Whitlow reached out to BuzzFeed and The Breeze. Whitlow was contacted by media members prior to her decision to tell the press about her situation.
Contact Madisson Haynes and Matt Weyrich at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.