University working to handle sexual assault cases

Posted on Mar 4 2014 - 8:32am by Lacey Russell

The topic of sexual assaults at universities has been highlighted both in recent media reports and government actions. The University of Mississippi is working to properly handle student sexual assault cases that occur both on campus and in the city of Oxford.

A federal law called the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act requires universities to distribute descriptions of policies related to campus security and disclose crime statistics to the public. The University of Mississippi Police Department provides a daily crime log for significant crime reports that is available for public viewing.

According to the log, 11 sexual offenses were reported to UPD in 2013. Of those 11, six were reported on campus, while five were off campus.

Oxford Police Department Investigator Jeff McCutchen said there were 12 forcible sexual offenses reported to the Oxford Police Department in the 2013 fiscal year, not including those that occurred on university grounds.

While sorting through past reports, McCutchen noticed a trend.

“What I saw was a peak during football season and then when it warms up (after winter),” McCutchen said. “There were really none through the summer that I could find.”

However, the number of sexual assault incidents that occurred in 2013 was not unusual for the city, according to the Clery report issued for both the university and the city of Oxford.

Four counts of forcible sexual offenses were reported to UPD in 2010, five in 2011 and one in 2012.

Fifteen counts of forcible sexual offenses were reported to the Oxford Police Department in 2009, two were reported in 2010 and 13 reported in 2011 and one in 2012.

McCutchen realizes that the reports he and the UPD receive may not accurately represent the true number of times an offense has actually occurred.

“It happens more than we realize,” McCutchen said. “The 12 (sexual assaults) that we had for 2013 may not even be scratching the surface to how often this truly has happened to someone.”

To better understand the scope of the issue on campus, the university released a Sexual Harassment Climate Survey via email on Oct. 22, 2013, according to Associate University Attorney Donna Gurley, who spoke on behalf of Title IX Assistant Coordinator Joseph Lawhorne and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Leslie Banahan. The survey concluded Oct. 30, 2013, and its results were published Nov. 1, 2013.

According to Gurley, the survey was launched after a student filed a sexual assault claim with the Office of Civil Rights and became unhappy with how the university dealt with their case.

The survey was sent to 19,224 email accounts, and only 1,468 surveys were either partially or fully completed. According to the results, 17 percent of those who responded had been sexually harassed.

While the response rate to the survey was relatively low in numbers, the results offered updated statistics about the views and perspectives of students regarding dealing with sexual violence on campus.

A recent report released by the White House Council on Women and Girls states that one in five women has been sexually assaulted while attending college, but only 12 percent of those student victims reported it.

The University of Mississippi provides a number of services for those seeking guidance when going through the sensitive process of an assault investigation.

The Violence Prevention Office, located in 114 Vardaman Hall, specializes in promoting awareness and prevention of sexual violence, dating violence and stalking on campus through education, events and training for students, faculty and staff.

“Victims of sexual assault can reach out to the Violence Prevention Office for support through the reporting process both on and off campus,” said Lindsey Bartlett, Violence Prevention Office project coordinator. “The office works closely with Title IX, the Counseling Center, UPD, off-campus Family Crisis Services and many other departments to ensure that victims have access to all the resources they potentially need.”

When it comes to reporting these types of crimes, Lawhorne said there is no wrong door to turn to.

“I would like for (students) to be able to go to anywhere on campus and report to any employee, and get directed to my office,” Lawhorne said.

Because federal law requires Title IX coordinators to investigate any case of sexual misconduct or harassment as fully as they can, the victim of an alleged assault holds most of the control.

“The only real exception to the victim being in control is that there’s a reason to think that the rest of the campus is in danger,” Lawhorne said. “In that case, you still don’t have to participate. You don’t have to talk, but I still may have to investigate. That’s only when we think others are in danger.”

Lawhorne said the potential consequences associated with this particular criminal charge are not to be taken lightly.

“For someone who’s found responsible of a sexual misconduct violation for sexual assault, the punishment in all likelihood is going to be expulsion or suspension for a number of years with certain conditions upon return,” Lawhorne said.

Not only is the student offender violating university policy, but they are also committing what McCutchen classifies as a violent crime, an offense that could constitute anywhere from 20 years to life in prison depending on the severity of the case.

Many of the sexual harassment or assault cases that come to the university involve alcohol, according to Gurley.

“In almost all student-on-student cases we see, alcohol is involved,” Gurley said. “Worse things happen when alcohol is involved, too.”

University Police Department Detective Peggie Jane Tutor said that while some cases may involve alcohol, there are cases that do not.

“There are times when sexual harassment cases involve alcohol or drugs, the combination of both and times when neither is present,” Tutor said.

Students as victims will not be charged with an alcohol or drug violation if they are under the influence at the time of the incident, according to the Clery Act.

Lawhorne stressed to all students that if they or someone they know has experienced any form of sexual misconduct, they should contact him through the Office of Equal Opportunity & Regulatory Compliance or by email at

Former DM reporter Amina Al Sherif, who graduated in December, contributed to this report.

— Lacey Russell