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THE WAY JAMES MADISON UNIVERSITY HANDLED THIS WOMAN'S SEXUAL ASSAULT CASE IS EVERY WOMAN'S WORST NIGHTMARE

Holly Christian, Buzzfeed Community

In June of 2017, James Madison University student Caroline Freeman* was sexually assaulted by a fellow JMU student while incapacitated during a study abroad trip through the Harrisonburg, VA school. Upon returning to campus in the fall of 2017—after the assault took place but prior to filing against her attacker—Caroline visited JMU’s University Health Center for STD testing. On the clinic’s entry form, Caroline says she checked a box that opted her to speak with someone about sexual assault, but no one from the clinic brought up the fact that she had checked this box or discussed resources with her.  In Dec. 2017, five months after the assault, Caroline reported the incident to the university’s Title IX Office.

The Title IX Office put a No Contact Order into place between Caroline and her assaulter, then collected statements from both parties and a select few incident witnesses. The file was then sent to the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (OSARP) to adjudicate the case.

Caroline says the process took more than three months, meanwhile Caroline still saw her assailant on campus almost every day. When she learned that he held a position in an office she was interviewing for, she asked Title IX to notify the office of the No Contact Order to ensure that her attacker would not be interviewing her. Title IX told her they could not reveal the name of the responding party (her assaulter) to the office that employed him.

Caroline attended the hearing scheduled for her by OSARP on March 28, 2018, which lasted more than eight hours. During the hearing, her attacker admitted that Caroline had verbally protested to the act, twice. Her attacker claimed that after rejecting his advances on two separate occasions within the same evening, he made a third sexual advance that she consented to. Caroline is unable to recall consenting to the alleged third advance.

“We had been kissing, and I told him I didn’t want to have sex before he even asked,” Caroline says of the evening the assault took place. “He went on to ask me for sex twice anyway, and I said ‘no’ both times.” Following the two rejections to her attacker’s advances, Caroline says she “blacked out,” and that the next thing she is able to remember is her assaulter on top of her saying, “I think you want to have sex with me.”  

Her attacker was ultimately found “not responsible” by a board of three JMU staff members. According to Caroline, the board gave her a one sentence explanation to justify their decision, which was that “the evidence was conflicting or inconclusive as to whether or not the reporting party was capable of giving consent due to incapacitation.” This explanation was given despite agreed upon evidence that Caroline and her attacker had consumed alcohol  together before the assault, that a significant portion of Caroline’s memories of the night were gone and in contradiction of  JMU’s own Student Handbook section on sexual misconduct, which states that, “Consent cannot be obtained by ignoring or acting in spite of the objections of another, by previous consent or by taking advantage of another person’s incapacitation or physical helplessness where one knows or reasonably should have known of such incapacitation or helplessness,” (policy J34-100).

Following the result of the hearing, Freeman posted her frustrations with the university in a Facebook status:

"I am extremely disappointed to be a student at James Madison University tonight. After a months-long investigation into a sexual assault perpetrated by another student and a hearing that lasted seven hours and did not focus primarily on the facts of the assault itself, a Board of three people determined my attacker "not responsible." They told me this news by handing me a piece of paper with two boxes checked and a one sentence explanation. I trusted JMU to have students' best interest and safety in mind, but this Board has shown me that my trust was clearly misplaced."

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After posting, Freeman says messages from other female students at James Madison University came flooding in reporting that they, too had their sexual assault cases mishandled by the university:  

“I was assaulted my freshman year in an elevator when I was coming back from a charity event. It was caught on surveillance video and I was told the evidence was insufficient, even though he was positively identified by the police. [OSARP] here at JMU told me that he was going through a really hard time in his family life, so they didn’t think I should pursue charges. I did pursue charges and won.” -Hali Smith,*JMU Student

“After the campus police arrived to the scene, took my picture and wrote down my statement, they pretty much just up and left without providing any resources or information. I was expected to resume my normal life as a happy, eager college freshman, despite the fact that I had undergone a horrific experience right there on campus. I wasn't told about the free counseling services on campus or Title IX. It wasn't until six months later that I learned these resources were available, and every day I just think about how, if my case had been handled properly and taken seriously, then maybe my attacker would have been identified. I'm left forever not knowing, and that's the worst part of it. Or at least, I thought it was, until two years passed and I realized that despite all the emails, meetings, and desperate phone calls I've had with the administration, they haven't done a damn thing to make any positive change. As an institution, it just doesn't feel like JMU cares for students who have been victims of sexual violence.” -Jenna Green,* JMU Student

JMU’s mishandling of sexual assault cases like Caroline’s, Hali’s and Jenna’s isn’t new, either. In 2014, The Daily Show highlighted JMU’s treatment of these sensitive cases in a clip after the university punished three male students who reportedly sexually assaulted a female student—and filmed themselves doing so—with expulsion upon graduation, meaning the students were allowed to graduate but were no longer permitted on school grounds after graduating. JMU’s student newspaper, “The Breeze,” also reported that a judge recommended JMU pay $850,000 to a former student over mishandling a sexual misconduct case in Dec. 2014.

Caroline has since filed (and been granted) an appeal to her hearing based on the grounds that the board violated her Due Process rights by failing to use the definition of “consent” outlined in the Student Handbook, policy J34-100. Freeman tells us that  three new board members will now review her case file and tapes from the hearing. The new board will then decide to either uphold or change the original decision, and the Dean of Students holds ultimate power to solidify the board’s decision. An update will be made to this post when a final outcome has been reached.

 

*victims’ last names have been changed to protect their privacy.