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"It's worth it" How one student activist is changing the way JMU handles sexual misconduct

By Jessica Kronzer

Kearstin Kimm’s hazel eyes welled with tears listening to the words of a stranger. Her work had an impact.

“It’s worth it,” Kimm thought.

Jane Smith, a survivor of sexual assault, heard about Students Against Sexual Violence (SASV) and how the group worked to get character statements moved to after the responding party’s responsbility has been determined during a Title IX OSARP trial.

Kimm, the co-founder of SASV, sat in a meeting where Smith discussed the possibility of sharing her story publically.

“I was so relieved when I heard that I wasn’t going to have to listen to people talk about how great the person who raped me is,” Smith (whose name has been changed) told Kimm.

Three days prior to their meeting, Kimm, a senior computer science major, felt “disheartened,” and “hopeless.”

After a year of work, Kimm made little progress at getting policies changed. SASV’s work to move character statements has been their biggest policy change at JMU.

“To find out that the one thing we did helped even a single person, that made everything worth it,” Kimm said. “You think that all this time and energy we’re spending on things isn’t making a difference but that’s not true. It’s making a difference.”

Caroline Whitlow, a friend of Kimm’s, was disappointed with OSARP’s decision that found her alleged attacker was “not responsible” in 2018. After months of contacting different offices with her concerns, Whitlow began planning a silent protest on the quad. Kimm joined in organizing the demonstration, which was in favor of changing how JMU handles sexual misconduct cases.

Whitlow’s survivorship acted as a catalyst for Kimm to co-found SASV with Whitlow during her sophomore year of college (2018).

“It was honestly very empowering,” Whitlow, a senior social work major, said. “It was a lot of meeting out of people’s apartments and kind of finding creative ways to do things.”

Kimm and Whitlow lead the ERA March from the Quad to the pavilion downtown.

This semester, SASV became an official organization recognized by the university. Kimm, who is in charge of organization development, handles SASV’s logistics, such as scheduling, agendas, and recruitment.

SASV works to improve how university administration responds to sexual misconduct and also hosts events and workshops relating to education and prevention. They work with OSARP, Title IX, student affairs and other offices to advocate for policy changes.

Kimm keeps Junie warm at the march by zipping her up in her coat.

During a recent SASV event at the JMU Commons, Kimm’s wavy fuschia hair sparkled on the warm fall day. She stroked a black dog, Junie, in her lap, who was wrapped in an oversized fuzzy blanket. Junie acted as her bribe to get students to stop and hear about her petition. As they pet the furry dog, Kimm swept in and explained her cause and often convinced students to sign in favor of the policy change.

“She knows what needs to happen and will work as hard as possible to get not just some version of the goal, but to make it happen, no matter how difficult it is,” Whitlow said.

Kimm and SASV are petitioning to get JMU to adopt a “serious misconduct” rule for student-athletes. The petition comes after one student-athlete pleaded no contest to a Class-2 misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment and continued playing for the team after a three-game suspension.

The rule would remove any player from their team who is found responsible of “conduct involving sexual assault, intimate partner violence, or serious physical assault in a university investigation, or if they are guilty or enter a guilty/no contest plea by the legal system.” Their goal is to get 5,000 signatures by the end of the academic year.

Part of how SASV intends to get signatures is by presenting to student organizations and Greek organizations. At presentations, the facilitators talk about what sexual violence is, the signs, and how to intervene. The conversation-based approach allows for an open discussion about sexual misconduct.

Despite prevention efforts and policies, sexual assault is still a prevalent issue on college campuses. All statistics represented in the graphic are from RAINN.org.

Even before founding a student-organization, Kimm was coined as the “feminist,” at her high school in Powhatan, Virginia.

“Even if people were using it in a derogatory or negative way, I stand very firm in my beliefs and if that means that some people have an opinion about me, that’s fine, because at least they’re listening,” Kimm said.

Coming from a rural area, Kimm witnessed that “rebel flags were abundant and the n word was thrown around,” and felt obligated to stand up for her beliefs. Kimm felt there was no local activist organization she could use as an outlet. One of her goals for SASV is to increase the opportunities for high schoolers to get involved in their cause.

Kimm’s activism bleeds into her work as a democracy fellow in the Center for Civic Engagement. Last summer, Kimm began researching the 19th Amendment in honor of the amendment’s 100th anniversary.

Her research led her to create a broader theme for her project, “Women Breaking Barriers,” that covers womens’ history and other developments in the suffrage movement. The end result was a timeline that included events relating to not only voting rights, but also abortion, marriage, and property rights as well.

“When you’re a CS student, it's really hard to apply it to outside things…” Kimm said. “You don’t really get to branch outside of STEM things in CS, unless you really really try- and this is me branching out.”

Kimm is currently moving her timeline onto a different platform that is better suited for the number of events she has. Her original timeline could only hold ten events.

Kimm’s timeline, which will be hosted online, now has over 220 events that span over 400 years.

Carah Ong Whaley, the associate director for the Center for Civic Engagement, said Kimm’s timeline has been picked up by professors at other universities who are using it in their curriculum.

Kimm also assists with the center’s website and with events like their constitution day and voter registration. Before becoming a democracy fellow, Kimm helped to plan a letter writing party last year where students could submit their thoughts on the proposed changes to Title IX.

Kimm said the university should “take notes” from the work the center does and its efforts to encourage students to voice their beliefs.

“Propell students to do what they want to do and give the power back to them instead of trying to keep things how they are,” Kimm said “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, but it is broken.”

Whaley sees Kimm as an example of someone who lives by deliberative action, meaning that her activism looks at creating structural changes and the root causes of issues.

“She has not been afraid to push for change where change is needed,” Whaley said. “Where others may have been hesitant she has not because she has seen injustice.”

Protestors carried various signs supporting the ERA at the march on December 6, 2019.

After college, Kimm wants to combine her activism and her CS skills by working for a nonprofit. She hopes to work for an organization that promotes women in STEM. She cited the example of being the only girl in her class four times while at JMU.

“It’s intimidating and you feel very alone, so I want to help other young girls and give them the support that I want and that others have given me,” Kimm said. “That’s something that I didn't know I could do before getting my fellowship. Now that I have it, I know I can bridge the two and find my niche.”

When Kimm gets a “grown-up” salary in her career, she plans to donate to SASV to fund their programming. She will also continue her activism as an alumna by pressuring the university to listen to student voices.

“The health center is great they do amazing work but if they could fix this problem they would have already… It’s the students’ job to do it,” Kimm said. “We need to be talking to each other and figuring out what we can do to make this campus a safer place for everyone.”

Spotlight on the Era

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