by JESS KIRBY
Early in the summer of 2017, Tirzah Rao was a rising sophomore working as an orientation leader and peer mentor when she reported to university administration that she had been physically and verbally assaulted by a coworker. She decided to report it because she felt unsafe and didn’t want to spend the rest of the summer with him.
But the way the office handled the situation troubled Tirzah, who repeatedly felt she wasn’t given enough support to resolve the ongoing difficulties with him. At the time, the case was tried by the Judicial Review Board, which has since been renamed the Office of Student Conduct and Responsibility.
Ultimately, the outcome led Tirzah to leave the school.
Tirzah is speaking up about her case now because a recent decision involving an assault case has brought up similar issues regarding the process used by the Office of Student Conduct and Responsibility, and faculty members say they have brought up several flaws in the system that still have not been fixed.
Specific details have been withheld regarding the recent case to respect the complainant’s wishes that she not be included in the story.
“It is an incredibly daunting position to be in where you are facing Dr. Tuttle, everyone else involved in this process, all of these adults who are supposed to be there to help you, and you can just feel that they are not and you can tell that your best interests are not at heart,” said Tirzah.
At the time of her assault, Tirzah was a pre-dental student and was in many of the same classes as the pre-med student who she said assaulted her. Although they were no longer working together while the case unfolded, he often joined Tirzah’s study groups, and she felt he was trying to intimidate her.
Even as Tirzah was dealing with the interpersonal stress, both from him and retaliation from his friends, she felt even more disempowered by the judicial process.
“When the hearing process started, that was kind of the worst of all of it,” said Tirzah.
She was not allowed to have anyone with her during the hearing, including her father, Anand Rao, the chair of the communication and digital studies department and director of the speaking intensive program at UMW. She said that she was questioned while the accused student was in the room, and he was allowed to ask questions too. Tirzah, however, was not present when he was being questioned, nor was she allowed to ask him questions.
Tirzah also said that Raymond Tuttle, the director of the Office of Student Conduct and Responsibility, asked multiple times during the hearing if she was okay with the assault appearing on the accused student’s record since he was applying to medical school. She felt that she was indirectly being blamed for any harm the incident would cause him.
“That’s not on me,” said Tirzah. “He’s the reason he wouldn’t get into med school. Yet that was brought up multiple times throughout my case, and I had a real problem with that. I was like, I’m also applying to go to these programs and seeking postgraduate education. What about the impact this has had on me, the fact that I don’t feel safe on campus anymore, the fact that I don’t feel comfortable here? That’s impacting me. That’s important too.”
Ultimately, the student was found not guilty. In order to find out the verdict, Tirzah was told she had to meet with Tuttle, and no one else was allowed in the room when he finally did tell her.
Although the student had been told to stay away from Tirzah, he didn’t.
“He kept pushing it because there was no real anything in place to prevent it,” she said.
Tirzah spoke to some of her professors, who understood her difficult position. But as she faced retaliation from the accused, she kept seeking support from administrators, which was fruitless.
“They would meet with me, sure, but they did not offer any support that made me feel safe, and even with clear retaliation going on,” said Tirzah. “I was encouraged by faculty to transfer and leave because even people who had been at UMW for forever saw that this is kind of how it goes and you probably aren’t safe.”
Tirzah eventually transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University and graduated in 2020. At the time, she didn’t speak up or tell the student media about what happened. But recently, she and her father decided to tell their story to help make change in the judicial review process.
Changes Requested to Judicial Process
In the recent violent physical assault case on campus, the same issues from Tirzah’s case arose. A student who had been assaulted was questioned in front of the person she accused, and she also wasn’t given the verdict by the Office of Student Conduct and Responsibility—she had to find out from other people.
“It was heartbreaking for me to learn this semester that other students are still facing the same experience that my daughter did over four years ago,” said Anand Rao. “I learned from a colleague that at least two other students have left the university, and others are considering transferring, because they also found the student conduct process to not be transparent, that they did not feel supported, and that they do not feel safe on campus.”
Tuttle declined to comment and referred The Weekly Ringer to the Office of Student Conduct and Responsibility’s policies and procedures, which can be found on its website.
According to the office’s student conduct process rights, accused students have the right to have the conduct process rights and procedures explained to them in a one-on-one meeting. They also have the right to view the incident documentation, have witnesses speak in their defense, question any witnesses participating in the hearing, “be present at the hearing, except during deliberation, or when other accused students are speaking,” have an advisor during the hearing, review the evidence presented and be notified of the decision.
In contrast, complainants have three rights: to “be physically separated from the accused student during the hearing” if they give at least two days’ notice, to have an advisor and to appeal the decision.
One recent change to the process is that complainants are allowed to have an advisor, often a professor, in the room for support. The Weekly Ringer did obtain a partial recording of the recent hearing, which occurred on Zoom. Kimberly Gower, an assistant professor in the College of Business, was the advisor.
At one point, Gower asked Tuttle: “I was curious as to why [the accused] was in the room while she was being questioned, but she wasn’t in the room when he was being questioned.”
Tuttle replied, “Well, that’s not something I can talk about.”
Since then, Anand Rao and Gower have met with several administrators, including Tuttle, Dean of Student Life Cedric Rucker, Associate Provost for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Shavonne Shorter and Vice President for Student Affairs Juliette Landphair.
“I expressed how disappointed I am that students are still reporting that they find the process to not be transparent and that students are leaving the university because they do not feel supported by the process,” said Anand Rao. “I appreciate Dr. Landphair’s willingness to meet with us, and she told us that she would be looking into these concerns and offered to meet with us over the summer to discuss what she finds.”
During the meeting with administrators, Gower brought up concerns about how the recent hearing was conducted.
“Some of the transparency issues, which Dr. Rao and I both brought up, included the fact that the victim had no idea the perpetrator would be in the same Zoom meeting,” Gower said in an email after the meeting. “The other was that twice Tuttle left us in the waiting room so he could talk to the perp alone, but never gave [the complainant] the same courtesy. I expressed confusion over this ‘due process’ and once again said there were no guidelines and [the complainant] had no idea what to expect and it certainly was NOT ok that she and I enter the meeting and find it out then.”
Anand Rao said that he had similar meetings with administrators back in 2018 but that the changes he requested still haven’t been made. He recommended that students in these situations seek support from Landphair.
“These are often students who have alleged attacks, or verbal threats, and are at their most vulnerable,” he said. “And after they are brave enough to come forward, the university puts them through a process where they are isolated, are not given the same rights as the accused, and are not given the same support as the accused.”
Additionally, Tirzah said that there should be a separate procedure for assault cases.
“I feel like these cases especially need to be handled with sensitivity and people who are trained to handle this,” said Tirzah. “And I just can’t imagine that, based on how this has gone down, that anyone involved is really trained in how to handle these types of cases. And so I think that there needs to be a completely separate procedure for something like this.”
Although there are different procedures within the Office of Title IX, Tirzah was told that she did not have access to those procedures because she wasn’t in a relationship with the accused student.
“I was told that there were certain procedures I could have gone through through Title IX had he been, say, my boyfriend and he had done this to me, but he was not my boyfriend,” said Tirzah. “He was some random man who felt entitled and got mad, and that wasn’t okay. So I don’t understand why I didn’t have access to those protections and resources simply because I wasn’t dating my abuser.”
Access to Disciplinary Records
Back in 2017 and 2018, Tirzah and Anand Rao faced hurdles when seeking information about her case once it was over. They were not given any of the case materials, and when they asked Tuttle for a copy of the original incident report submitted by an administrator, he said he would send one, but he didn’t.
“When I emailed to ask again for a copy, he replied that he could not because it also listed the name of the other student involved in the incident, the accused,” said Anand Rao. “We were not given a copy of the Maxient report until we filed a FOIA request,” referring to the Freedom of Information Act. Maxient is the software used to report incidents on campus.
It was unfair, he thought, that the accused student was able to receive the document, but not his daughter. Their FOIA request also asked for any communications about Tirzah’s case. When the school assessed fees for providing the document and communications, they were eventually quoted over $500.
Similar issues were brought up when student reporters tried to get information about the recent case. The Weekly Ringer’s Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the final results of the case was denied by the Office of University Relations because the records are exempt, according to Anna Billingsley, associate vice president for university relations, under a law called FERPA, which protects students’ scholastic records.
“The specific documents requested remain scholastic records exempt from disclosure in accordance with Section 2.2-3705.4 of the Code of Virginia and prohibited from release in accordance with FERPA,” Billingsley wrote.
However, a reporter’s discussions with the Student Press Law Center revealed that the university may be breaking the law by not providing the verdict to the complainant and the newspaper. According to U.S. law, the center says, schools are not prohibited by FERPA from disclosing the results of disciplinary proceedings in cases involving violence or non-forcible sex offense.
Additionally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, “The offenses that constitute a crime of violence or a non-forcible sex offense include arson, assault offenses, burglary, criminal homicide (manslaughter by negligence), criminal homicide (murder and nonnegligent manslaughter), destruction/damage/vandalism of property, kidnapping/abduction, robbery, forcible sex offenses, statutory rape, and incest.”
The recent case was a crime involving violence.
The lack of transparency regarding these cases, many say, adds to students’ feelings of unsafety because students can’t assess whether a situation was adjudicated fairly if they don’t know the outcome.
“Our number one job is to make students feel safe,” said Gower, who served as the complainant’s support person throughout the hearing. “And I know … our female students do not feel safe on our campus.”