Student advocacy offices merge to support the accused and survivors of sexual assault

Posted on May 3 2019 - 5:05am by Mckenzie Richmond

The university Office of Leadership and Advocacy, which among other services, offers case management teams for students who have experienced sexual assault, is being dissolved into two other offices on campus: The Ole Miss Student Union and UMatter. This change comes after two lawsuits were filed against the university by two former students who said they were discriminated against for being male during their sexual misconduct hearings.

Rebels Against Sexual Assault President Colleen Fay said the Office of Leadership and Advocacy is merging with the Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) Office, which explicitly provides support for survivors of sexual violence, under the joint title UMatter.

“UMatter will consist of three case managers that will handle student advocacy, sexual assault response and violence intervention and prevention,” associate director of university communications Rod Guajardo said in a statement.

These modifications come five months after United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed changes to how universities handle sexual misconduct. Her proposal includes narrowing the definition of sexual assault and providing accused students the presumption of innocence throughout the disciplinary process along with more resources.

This would be a shift from the requirement implemented by the Obama administration’s Department of Education, which stated that if there is a “preponderance of evidence,” or just over 50% likelihood of guilt, the accused should be ruled guilty. Universities that did not follow the mandate would be at risk of losing federal funds.

Though students said they are hesitant about the name change, they are largely not opposed to the additional support service to the accused.

“I think it’s good that the school is reformatting the Violence Intervention and Prevention Office, as long as it is coming from a genuine place of concern for students rather than any financial or other outside pressures,” junior biochemistry major Paxton Holder said. “Especially in sexual assault cases, historically, there have been too many times when men have been let off the hook. I think aggressors should be held responsible but definitely should have representation and support, because not everyone has malicious intent.”

In 2017, a student filed a lawsuit against the university, saying he was a victim of gender bias in the university disciplinary process. Another student made the same allegations against the university in 2018.

According to the lawsuit filed from the fall of 2017, “the Title IX investigation did not accept key pieces of evidence that (the student) brought forth and the investigation was biased against him.”

Although the plaintiff said there was gender bias in the investigation, the University Judicial Council found the student responsible for violating the university sexual misconduct policy. He was suspended from the university from November 2017 until August 2018. The student attempted to appeal the suspension, but it was denied and his suspension was heightened to an expulsion.

According to the case filed in 2018, a former student filed a lawsuit “against the university and the state College Board alleging he was a victim of gender discrimination from his long-term suspension for what he calls a false sexual misconduct allegation.”

The lawsuit stated that both parties involved in the case acted consensually, and the woman involved in that case did not initially file a case against him.

However, the student was found guilty and expelled, like the previous student. The sanction was later changed to a suspension until fall 2020.

At the time of the lawsuits, the university did not have a response to questions regarding the dispute and refrained from discussing the litigations with those outside the cases.

Changes in the office not only will affect the name and services at the VIP office, but will also affect programs associated with sexual assault support and awareness, such as RASA.

Fay said she was informed on the transitions happening in the VIP office, but RASA was not directly involved in the decision-making process.

“RASA, since its inception, has been closely tied to the VIP office for advising,” Fay said. “As a result of these changes in advocacy, RASA has undergone changes in advising. We will be advised through the (Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies) and the Counseling Center.”

The VIP office declined to comment and directed all inquiries to university general counsel Erica McKinley, who also declined to comment.