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University officials declare zero tolerance sexual assault policy, support survivors

Sarah Mervosh | Thursday, December 9, 2010

The number of forcible sex offenses reported to Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s does not match the national statistic that one in five women are sexually assaulted or experience an attempted sexual assault during their college years.

But Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s know their students are no different.

“Based on what the national data tells us, we continue to be concerned about attempted and completed sexual assaults occurring that are not being reported,” Ann Firth, chair of the University’s Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention (CSAP), said.

From 2007 to 2009, there were 21 sex offenses reported, including eight forcible rapes, according to annual statistics from Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) and Saint Mary’s.

This school year, NDSP has notified the student body of four reported sexual assaults.

Both Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s have groups that work specifically against sexual assault.

At Notre Dame, CSAP works to develop policies and programs that support survivors of sexual assault and communicate a no-tolerance policy to perpetrators. The group is comprised of administrators, students, rectors and representatives from NDSP.

At Saint Mary’s, the Belles Against Violence Office, which opened this fall after the College received a grant to fund it, deals with issues such as dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

CSAP worked with student government two years ago to conduct a systematic review of resources for survivors, University policies and preventative measures. Firth said it was the first review of its kind.

“It was an extremely helpful process, and it led the University to take a number of important steps,” Firth said.

A major result of the review was creating a more comprehensive Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct Policy. The new policy defines prohibited sexual misconduct and consent.

“Consent means informed, freely given agreement, communicated by clearly understandable words or actions, to participate in each form of sexual activity,” the policy states. “Consent cannot be inferred from silence, passivity or lack of active resistance.”

Firth said it is important to consider the role alcohol can play in sexual assault because in the majority of incidents on college campuses, one or both of the parties have been drinking.

“This trend is reflected on our own campus,” Firth said based on cases that have been reported.

CSAP and other groups work to raise awareness about alcohol use in relation to sexual assault, and the Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct Policy directly addresses the issue.

“Intoxication is not an excuse for failure to obtain consent,” the policy states. “A person incapacitated by alcohol or drug consumption, or who is unconscious or asleep or otherwise physically impaired, is incapable of giving consent.”

The policy also details the process by which a student can report the incident.

If the assault occurred on campus, survivors report to NDSP, but if it occurred off campus, the appropriate agency is likely city or county police. This is separate from reporting the perpetrator to the Office of Residence Life and Housing (ORLH) or pressing charges.

Students who want the incident to remain confidential can speak with the University Counseling Center, their rector or campus ministers, who will honor confidentiality unless there is an imminent threat to the student or others.

When a survivor reports a perpetrator to ORLH, they submit a written statement and the accused student will have a disciplinary conference or hearing. Unlike other student disciplinary cases, though, the person filing the case is allowed to be present throughout the entire conference or hearing and is informed of the outcome of the case.

If the perpetrator is found responsible for sexual assault, he or she “will ordinarily face disciplinary sanctions up to and including dismissal from the University,” according to the student handbook, du Lac.

Procedures for handling sexual assault reports are slightly different at Saint Mary’s because the College does not have its own fully authorized police force.

Incidents that happen on Saint Mary’s campus are reported to the St. Joseph County Police, and if an incident happened on another campus, the survivor has the option to file a police report or a complaint with that University’s disciplinary office, said Karen Johnson, vice president for Student Affairs at Saint Mary’s.

But Johnson said the College allows the survivor to make her own decision regarding how to proceed.

“Studies show that a woman who has been sexually assaulted suffers a lost sense of control,” she said. “It must be her choice whether she files a police report, seeks medical attention, speaks with the prosecutor, seeks counseling, etc.

“At the end of the day these decisions are hers and hers alone.”

Firth emphasized that sexual assault is “unacceptable” and will not be tolerated at Notre Dame. Specifically, she said sexual assault contradicts the University’s foundational purpose to promote the formation of an “authentic human community graced by the Spirit of Christ.”

“We seek to embody the notion that all persons have inherent dignity and worth as creations of a loving God,” Firth said. “Whenever we act without respect, reverence and responsibility, we deny this fundamental truth.

“Sexual violence is antithetical to the values of our community and can have no place among us.”