December 13, 2017  

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Southern Miss Takes Proactive Stance Against Sexual Misconduct

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A new Title IX Office, consistent policy protocols, and heightened awareness have placed The University of Southern Mississippi at the forefront of collegiate institutions confronting the issues of sexual harassment and misconduct.

“We realize that sexual misconduct is a serious matter on university campuses nationwide,” said Paul Walters, director of the Office of Compliance and Ethics at Southern Miss. “It is incumbent upon us to pursue every means available to ameliorate the consequences of this unlawful and demeaning conduct.”

Acknowledging the significant expansion of Title IX’s scope by the U.S. government’s Office of Civil Rights, the University created a separate Title IX Office earlier this year. Title IX was established in 1972, with the purpose of removing all barriers, discrimination and harassment against students attending schools (K-12 and higher education) that receive financial assistance from the federal government.

Dr. Rebecca Woodrick Malley, coordinator of the University’s Title IX Office, points out that the average person typically thinks “equality in student athletics” when the phrase “Title IX” is mentioned. However, she notes that the scope and responsibility of Title IX implementation has widened greatly in recent years.

“This is particularly true in response to public outcry over the types of sexual misconduct occurring on college campuses, and a perception of inadequate response on the part of the institutions,” said Malley. “Title IX is now interpreted by the federal government as encompassing not only protection from disparate treatment based on sex, but also on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or perceptions of such. It also provides protection for students based on pregnancy status.”

The University’s Title IX Office partners with several University entities to create and maintain a learning and working environment free from sex or gender-based discrimination. Those include: the University Police Department, the Shafer Center for Crisis Intervention, Human Resources, and Student Counseling Services.

In 2013, Southern Miss revised its Sexual Misconduct Policy and procedure in response to guidance from the Office of Civil Rights. The current protocol provides one policy and one process for dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct – regardless of whether a student, staff, or faculty member is involved.

“This allows consistency in investigation, adjudication, and discipline for all instances of sexual misconduct,” said Walters.

Sexual misconduct includes more behaviors than sexual assault, and all those behaviors are addressed through the University’s Title IX Office, including: relationship violence, sexual exploitation, cyberstalking, unwanted touching, and pressure from a superior to engage in unwanted sexual behavior.

The University has a trained team of 15 investigators – faculty and staff -- who are empaneled in groups of three to hear and adjudicate allegations of sexual misconduct. Initial training for team members was conducted by the Association of Title IX Administrators, a professional organization hailed as one of the country’s leading authorities on Title IX issues.

The initial training is supplemented with continuing education throughout the year conducted by professionals brought in to brief the team on issues such as:

  • Changes in the law
  • Investigative and evidentiary gathering techniques
  • Social and psychological consequences of violent or aberrant behavior
  • Dealing with victims of sexual crimes

USM’s ongoing efforts to provide relevant information to the entire University community also include development of an online training program for all employees and students – scheduled to be in place by Sept. 1.

“The training will include modules related to sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, sexual violence, as well as other topics such as bullying, bystander intervention, and alcohol and drug education,” said Walters. “We will also be performing in-person training with these same modules for persons who don’t have access to online programming.”

Last November the University’s Student Government Association led a University-wide sexual assault awareness effort titled: “It’s on Us.” The initiative worked to raise awareness of the issue with the following objectives:

  • To recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault
  • To identify situations in which sexual assault may occur
  • To intervene in situations where consent has not, or cannot, be given
  • To create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported

Creating and establishing programs to handle allegations of sexual misconduct is one thing; getting individuals impacted by such incidents to file an official report often poses an even greater challenge for universities. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that between one-quarter and one-fifth of college women experience sexual assault, but fewer than half of the victims ever report it to the authorities.

In 2013, there was only one report of sexual assault filed with the University Police Department. Last year there were three reports filed with the department. UPD Chief Bob Hopkins empathizes with those who are reluctant to come forward. “We understand the significant impact and trauma associated with a person who has been, or feels that they have been, sexually assaulted,” he said.

But Hopkins stresses that reporting incidents of this nature can lead to criminal charges and prosecution which – in turn – could serve as a deterrent to others contemplating sexual assaults.

“It is important that the University community knows that our department encourages reporting of these crimes and that we are prepared to follow-up on their behalf and assist in other needs that may prove helpful in the recovery process,” he said.

Deena Crawford, director of Student Counseling Services at Southern Miss, says most women feel validated and less alone when they speak to someone about their experience as a victim of sexual assaults.

“As counselors, we remain neutral regarding reporting – giving victims their choice back,” said Crawford. “We do help them with decision balancing (pros/cons for reporting or not reporting) and support them in whatever their choice is. We’ve seen reporting be very empowering to some victims. Unfortunately, reporting has been a negative experience for some as well.”

Crawford notes that the majority of incidents disclosed to Student Counseling Services involve allegations of “acquaintance rape” at off-campus sites. Student Counseling Services will hold its first rape survivors group meeting during the current semester.

“Many of those assaults involve alcohol,” she said. “In addition, we see many victims who were assaulted but did not report until much later – usually because they are having problems functioning due to their experience.”

In an effort to fortify its training and prevention efforts, the University has applied for a federal grant from the Office on Violence Against Women – housed within the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant, designed specifically for colleges and universities, focuses on training campus entities regarding sexual assault response, coordinating community agencies with University initiatives, and prevention and education programs.

At The University of Southern Mississippi, resources are being utilized and strategies are being developed to combat the destructive effects of sexual misconduct.

“Because of the strong support provided by the USM administration, faculty and staff, we are in a position to be a national leader in identifying and dealing with this issue,” said Walters. “We want everyone who works, studies and resides at our University to know that sexual misconduct on our campuses will be dealt with appropriately.”

To learn more about the Title IX Office at Southern Miss, including related policies and procedures, call 601.266.4466 or visit: http://www.usm.edu/general-counsel/title-ix