Proposed changes to Title IX could impact JMU’s response to sexual misconduct reports

By Jessica Kronzer

The Department of Education has proposed changes to Title IX, including specifying the definition of sexual harassment, allowing lawyers to cross-examine reporting parties and giving universities a choice to not hear off-campus sexual misconduct cases, prompting 107,077 responses from the public comment period. 

One anonymous comment was from a JMU student who wrote that she has been sexually assaulted. Her concern was over the proposed legislation giving an option for schools to not hear cases of off campus misconduct. 

“The entire reason we reside in Harrisonburg is because we attend JMU,” the anonymous student said. “Every college likes to emphasize how it’s not just a school, its a community. But what kind of community is it really if they leave us to fend for ourselves when we have a crime committed against us?”

Amy Sirocky-Meck, JMU’s Title IX coordinator, explained that since only freshmen are required to live on-campus, the majority of sexual misconduct cases are from off-campus incidents. 

Under the current legislation, study abroad students hold many of the same rights from Title IX as students on college campuses. Taryn Roberts is the associate director of study abroad within the Center for Global Engagement (CGE) at JMU. Around a year and half ago, she also became the first Title IX Officer for CGE at JMU. She is available to students to ensure they get the access to Title IX resources when incidents occur abroad.

Since starting her positions, Roberts said in an email, “there have only been a small handful of [sexual misconduct] cases directly related to study abroad.”

Tim Miller, JMU’s vice president of student affairs, met with students in the fall to discuss sexual misconduct policy at JMU. His more recent meetings focused on the national proposed policy.

Miller reminded students that the Department of Education must sort through and respond to every policy comments made. This response would be an overarching “Thank you for commenting” or it could be more personal. The way the department choses to respond could mean it will be months before we see a final version of the legislation proposed. 

Miller said that the proposed policy may be a push to get students to go through the court system, rather than using the university process. He recognized the difficulty of using the legal process for some survivors. 

“The biggest underlying question is who should deal with these incidents when they happen,” Miller said. “We’re not a court system. We’re a university.”

Wendy Lushbaugh, the director of the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (OSARP), expressed that the proposed changes could limit student’s choices as well. OSARP requires a lower level of evidence than criminal cases and can sometimes provide a faster process than criminal hearings. 

“It’s so important that Title IX always offer all of the choices,” Lushbaugh said. “Each person is so different and what they’re wanting, and how they want to proceed with that.”  

Alyssa Martini, a junior biology and pre-med major, is a student activist with the students against sexual violence (SASV).  While attending Merrimack College in Massachusetts, Martini was sexually assaulted and went through her school’s conduct process, similar to OSARP’s. According to Martini, Merrimack’s policy is not as well outlined as JMU’s policy. Being a smaller school, with a population of roughly 3,500, Merrimack deals with less cases of sexual misconduct than JMU. 

One of the proposed changes that concerns Martini is the ability for responding party’s lawyers to cross-examine a reporting party during a trial. 

“I think that aspect alone could prevent survivors from coming forward because it is a really nerve-wracking thing for a lot of people,” Martini said. “It is essentially re-traumatizing someone.”

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