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Jenkins: Seeberg investigation had ‘integrity’

Laura McCrystal | Friday, January 21, 2011

Following media coverage of sexual assault allegations made by Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeberg and an announcement from the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office that no charges would be filed, the University called its investigation “thorough and careful.”

 

Seeberg, a first year Saint Mary’s student, alleged that a Notre Dame student athlete sexually assaulted her on Aug. 31. She committed suicide Sept. 10.

 

The University had previously declined to comment on the topic, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prohibits colleges and universities from discussing students’ education records.

 

“As you know it’s unusual and perhaps unprecedented for me to comment on a case like this,” University President Fr. John Jenkins said in a Dec. 21 interview with The South Bend Tribune. “But I cannot stand by and allow the integrity of Notre Dame to be challenged so publicly.”

 

University spokesman Dennis Brown said because Notre Dame takes FERPA seriously, it has a policy of not publicly acknowledging the presence of disciplinary investigations.

 

“We think the principle of privacy is so important that we’re willing to take some of the criticism that comes with that,” Brown said.

 

The University worked with the accused student in the case of Seeberg’s allegations, however, and decided to speak about the investigation, Brown said.

 

“The investigation was thorough and careful and I believe that that needs to be understood by all,” Jenkins told The South Bend Tribune. “The main point I want to make is the investigation had integrity. It followed the facts where it led and any results were based on that sort of investigation.”

 

According to a Dec. 16 press release from the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office, Seeberg alleged sexual battery, or forced touching of her breasts. Seeberg did not make an allegation of rape.

 

On Sept. 1, Brown said Seeberg went to St. Joseph Regional Medical Center to report a Notre Dame student-athlete assaulted her while they were in his dorm room on the evening of Aug. 31. A Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) officer, who Brown said has over 35 years of experience and has investigated over 200 sex crime allegations, met Seeberg at the hospital that evening and took a handwritten statement.

 

The next day, Seeberg asked the officer for a copy of her original statement and said she would like to submit a second statement.

 

While waiting for Seeberg’s second statement, Brown said the officer spoke with two students who had been with Seeberg and the accused student the evening of the alleged assault.

 

Seeberg e-mailed that statement to the officer at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 5. Because the following day was Labor Day, Brown said the officer did not view the new statement until Sept. 7, at which time he found inconsistencies with the other two students’ statements.

 

The NDSP officer contacted the accused student on Sept. 9, but the student did not return the phone call.

 

The officer learned on Sept. 11, a Saturday, that the Sept. 10 suicide of a Saint Mary’s student was Seeberg. On Monday, Sept. 13, Brown said the officer contacted other local law enforcement agencies because the death changed the perspective of the investigation. He also tried again to contact the accused student. The accused student met with the NDSP officer on Sept. 15.

 

The Seeberg family, through media outlets such as ABC News and The Chicago Tribune, expressed concern with the two-week period between the original allegation and the meeting with the accused student. In his interview with The South Bend Tribune, Jenkins cited the inconsistencies between the students’ statements as reason for the delay.

 

“We conducted an investigation, I think, that was judicious and fair to all parties involved,” Jenkins said. “We grieve for the Seebergs, for the loss of their daughter. At the same time, we have to follow the facts where they lead.”

 

According to the statements from Seeberg, she was with the accused student, a Saint Mary’s student and another male Notre Dame student in a men’s residence hall at Notre Dame on the evening of Aug. 31.

 

Seeberg’s statement said the two male students appeared to text message one another, and then the male student and Saint Mary’s student left the room. According to Chicago attorney Joseph A. Power, Jr., who is representing the accused student, cell phone records that NDSP obtained for the investigation show that this text messaging did not occur.

 

Seeberg alleged that the male student-athlete then kissed her and touched her breasts, then threw her aside when he received a text message or phone call.

 

Power said the text messages showed neither a text message nor incoming phone call at that time. He said the statements from the other three students and the subpoenaed cell phone records support a phone call from the accused student to the other male student. According to Power, Seeberg’s statement was inconsistent with those of the three other students, who said the phone call was placed because the accused student wanted the other two students to return to the room.

“I think it’s important that people recognize that the evidence shows one phone call,” Power said. “And that’s from the [accused student] from his phone to the dorm mate.”

 

The December press release from the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office on its decision not to prosecute also cited inconsistencies in the statements.

 

“Only Ms. Seeberg and the student-athlete were present during the alleged battery,” the release stated. “Conflicts exist among the witnesses’ accounts of the events given to the police.

Subpoenaed cell phone records are inconsistent with parts of the complaint itself.”

Jenkins said the University allows the prosecutor to make a conclusion on charges before determining whether to proceed with an internal disciplinary process. Brown said the University has not yet decided whether to hold a disciplinary hearing.

 

In November, Seeberg’s parents sent a letter through their attorney to Jenkins, Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. Tom Doyle and Notre Dame general counsel Marianne Corr.

 

According to Brown, Corr read the letter and also sent it to NDSP. Because Jenkins and Doyle could ultimately serve as levels of appeal in the University’s disciplinary process, they did not read the letter.

 

“I am the ultimate court of appeal in disciplinary matters and, consequently, I tried to remain somewhat distant so I am not tainted by one side or another presenting their side of the story,” Jenkins told The South Bend Tribune.

 

Doyle met Lizzy’s father Tom Seeberg on Sept. 13 at a memorial Mass for Lizzy on Saint Mary’s campus. Since that time, Brown said Doyle maintained regular contact with Tom Seeberg.

Tom Seeberg declined to comment.

 

Beyond the Seeberg investigation, Brown said the University is working with the U.S. Department of Education on an overall review of its policies. This review is not related to any specific case.

 

He also said NDSP normally does not send reports to St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office if the student filing an allegation does not request that it be forwarded. Seeberg had not expressed an interest in sending the report to the prosecutor, but the University did choose to forward the investigation results.

 

The University will work with the prosecutor’s office to decide whether to begin forwarding every investigation into sexual assault allegations, Brown said.

 

“We’ll work with the prosecutor on that and try to determine what practice we should follow going forward,” he said.

 

Jenkins said there is always a potential to improve investigations.

 

“I’m certain, we can always improve,” he said, “but I am confident that this investigation was done with integrity. We followed the facts where they led. We achieved a sound result.”