Ole Miss working to promote sexual assault awareness

Posted on Oct 22 2014 - 7:17am by Karson Brandenburg

The University of Mississippi reported five forcible sex offenses on campus in 2013, while there were 10 reported in Lafayette County, according to official records.

These incidents were among the 93 reported over the past five years, according the University Police Department’s Annual Security Report released Oct. 1.

That number may seem low compared to other universities in the nation — like Penn State’s report of 56 sexual assaults in 2012, according to an article by The Washington Post in July 2014 — but University Assistant Police Chief Ray Hawkins isn’t satisfied.

“Crime is always changing,” Hawkins said. “And I wouldn’t want to sit here and say ‘yes, we have a grip on crime.’ I think we’re always looking for ways to improve, and we’re always looking for ways to make our campus safer. And even though I have some degree of comfort in where we are, I still think there’s room for improvement.”

The university is required by federal law to report all crimes and make that information available to the public. The Annual Security Report also reports on non-forcible sex offenses, arson, burglary and aggravated assault, among other crimes.

Sexual assaults on college campuses have recently hit the national news with President Barack Obama’s “It’s on Us” initiative, designed to draw attention to the problem and identify solutions.

The website launched along with the “It’s on Us” campaign; itsonus.org states the initiative is a personal commitment to help keep women and men safe from sexual assault. It is a promise not to be a bystander to the problem, but to be a part of the solution.

Josh Gillespie, who works closely with the university’s Violence Prevention Office to promote sexual assault awareness, compared passive bystanders to the interactions of zebras and their predators.

“Zebras will often watch one of their own get taken down by a predator, and they won’t do anything about it. The idea is to not be a zebra,” Gillespie said.

The University of Mississippi began the Green Dot program in order to promote the idea of students being active bystanders: an individual prepared to intervene when a potentially violent incident looks like it may occur. This would include intervening in domestic abuse situations where physical danger may occur or when a person appears too intoxicated to give consent.

“The idea is to put people in a situation where they are helping,” Gillespie said. “It teaches people to stand up, not just for themselves, but for others, too.”

Consent is defined by the university as an agreement through clear actions or words to engage in sexual activity. If intoxicated, a person cannot legally give consent.

In addition, intoxication should not hinder a complainant or witness from reporting a crime.

Hawkins said, “If you have a victim, and there’s enough evidence to show that a crime was committed then we would go forward with our investigation and prosecution.”

The university’s Amnesty Policy also encourages students to speak up about sexual assaults by promising that students will not face repercussions by the student conduct office for reporting a crime while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

At The University of Mississippi, campus employees are expected to be active bystanders, or at the minimum, they must report any sexual assault they hear about to the university’s Title IX coordinator.

The reporting process begins when a complainant chooses to report the assault, either to UPD or a campus employee. If UPD is involved, they will report the sexual assault to the Title IX coordinator and begin their own investigation.

“We try not to go into cases blind,” Hawkins said. “We try not to think that just because you have A and B, it equals C. There are a lot of circumstances that investigators have to analyze and depending on the complexity of the crime, we may ask for outside help.”

If a university employee receives information about a sexual assault, they are required only to report the information to the Title IX coordinator.

The exceptions to the rule are parties with privilege, meaning the counseling center, psychological services, the health center and Lindsey Bartlett Mosvick, the project coordinator for the university’s violence prevention office.

Joseph Lawhorne, The University of Mississippi’s Title IX Coordinator, follows up with complainants about the reports and asks their permission to investigate the incident. The only time an investigation would continue without the complainant’s permission is when others at the university may be in danger. Even then, the complainant does not have to participate in the investigation.

“The bulk of what comes through here is student-focused—allegations of sexual discrimination which includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking,” Lawhorne said.

Lawhorne collects information about the allegations from the complainant, respondent and any other involved parties, and he sends it to the conduct office, where the university may carry out the disciplinary process depending on the evidence.

“We try to determine what happened and make sure that the university responds appropriately,” Lawhorne said. “My main concerns deal with the safety of the particular student, safety for the campus as a whole and then also making sure that the student is comfortable going to class.”

“If someone tells you that they’ve experienced (a sexual assault), you want to make sure you do everything you can for them,” Gillespie said. “Give them their options. UPD is a resource, so is the Oxford Police Department. Health promotions now has (sexual assault nurse examiners) from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We also have a violence prevention coordinator, a Title IX coordinator, and all of these people are there to help them.”

But Gillespie also said that too much at once can easily overwhelm a complainant.

“Sometimes (complainants) just want an ear to listen to,” Gillespie said. “They just want to tell somebody. The last thing you want to do is push them into a direction they’re not ready to go.”

Student Health Services is available to help students between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, and Baptist Memorial Hospital, located on South Lamar at Belk Avenue is available after hours or for off-campus incidents.

Karson Brandenburg