Sexual Assault and JMU’s Hidden Figures

The following post was written by guest blogger, Stephen Roddewig.

In 2014, JMU found three fraternity men “responsible” for the forceful sexual assault of Sarah Butters during a spring break trip and sentenced them to “expulsion after graduation.” But the focus of media coverage centered on the university, whose ruling sparked the initial outcry surrounding the case. The university social structure tasked with preventing sexual assault, though attempting to maintain a profile of responsibility, proves that the devil lies in the details.

After waiting 372 days from the report of her sexual assault to the sentencing of the offenders, Butters filed a Title IX lawsuit. According to the complaint, Butters felt discouraged from pursuing the case, and that the university acted to avoid negative publicity. In a statement, JMU responded that it is equipped to deal with sexual assault, yet officials stated to Butters that the university would not independently investigate her case without her involvement.

Dr. Joshua Bacon, associate dean of the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (OSARP), stated that JMU processes two to three sexual assault cases per year. On the face, the figure indicates that the incidence of sexual assault is not a widespread issue. But simple statistics show that the number is grossly misleading.

As of Fall 2016, 21,270 students are enrolled at JMU. 60 percent identify as female, meaning that 12,762 women study on this campus. A National Institute of Justice study published in 2000 found that one-fifth to one-quarter of self-identified women are the victims of attempted or completed rape during their time at college. Taking the highest estimation (25 percent), 3,190 women of the current JMU population will be assaulted or raped over four years at a rate of approximately 798 women a year. Individual universities will vary from the average, but if the figure lies anywhere close to JMU’s incidence rate, then two to three cases is absurdly low (.3 percent of potential cases processed).

This analysis has also yet to consider college male victims, who suffer sexual assault at a rate of 5.4 percent. Through the same calculations, the figure indicates that of the 8,508 male-identified students enrolled at JMU, 459 will experience sexual assault, or approximately 115 cases each year. This figure alone is over 12 times higher than the number of cases handled by OSARP. Compound these figures with the fact that JMU does not report transgender demographic numbers, a population which the Office for Victims of Crime reports suffers sexual abuse and assault at a rate of 50 percent. Factoring in all of the victimized populations only emphasizes the disparity.

The university failed its students. In the Title IX complaint, Butters demanded a trial by jury in a criminal court. Under any other circumstance, sexual assault is a Class 1 Misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Unless a more accountable system is found, female, male, and transgender individuals will continue to feel discouraged from reporting or pursuing cases by a system that is inefficient, discouraging, and lenient, reproducing the current social structure of male dominance and sexual assault. Give Butters her demand: remove the university from the justice process and implement criminal courts. Sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong and her co-authors write that culture is produced in response to social structures, so the strictest structure may result in the dissolution of the assault culture that proliferates across college campuses.

Featured image here.

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