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Sexual assault policy encourages reporting

Megan Doyle | Wednesday, December 7, 2011


In the eyes of Associate Vice President for Residential Life Heather Russell, more reports of sexual assault can be good news.

This is because for Russell, more reports mean less silence.

“When we’re doing this right … the number of people reporting is going to go way up,” Russell said. “I don’t think that’s because there is anything new under the sun. I believe it’s because we are actually creating a system that people think works and a culture of reporting, and some people who have been silent in the past will come forward.”

Russell serves as the University’s Deputy Title IX coordinator, which means that she is the first point of contact for all reports of sexual assault on campus.

Russell’s position is a new one not only at Notre Dame, but at most college campuses across the United States. The job is a product of the “Dear Colleague” letter issued in April by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education.

The letter called for all colleges to more strongly implement Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sexual discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds. Russell said the letter required the University to create her position as well as a more clearly outlined investigation process for sexual assault.

While she could not comment on specific cases, Russell said the number of reports this semester has already exceeded the number she expected for the entire year.


Under the microscope

Even as Notre Dame implemented these Title IX changes, Russell said the OCR had another concern.

“At the same time, the OCR had come forward to Notre Dame and asked if we would do a voluntary compliance review, and Notre Dame agreed,” Russell said.

Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. Tom Doyle said the OCR approached the University in fall 2010.

“They visited campus, they interviewed people, they looked at particular cases,” Doyle said. “At the end of that review, they wrote a letter that is a public document that basically was what their findings were. They spent about half of the letter commending Notre Dame for the things that are included in its policies and practices … and then they spent about half the letter making suggestions.”

In the letter, the OCR said its investigation was “agency-initiated,” not based on a specific complaint.

“OCR’s investigation followed an internal review of previously filed cases against the university, and recent articles in the press about Notre Dame’s handling of sexual assault complaints, including one incident in which a student committed suicide after reporting that she was sexually assaulted by another student,” the letter stated.

Earlier that fall, Saint Mary’s student Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide after alleging that a Notre Dame football player sexually assaulted her.

Doyle said Seeberg’s death and the investigation did fall in proximity to one another.

“Whether or not there is causality there, I don’t know,” he said.


New process

Russell said the new Title IX process must be condensed within 60 days, a new requirement from the Department of Education.

These 60 days begin when a victim reports an assault to a non-confidential source — typically anyone who is not a dorm rector or a member of campus ministry.

This person then reports the names of the student, date, time, location and brief description of the assault to Russell. Both the accused and the complainant are then assigned a sexual assault resource coordinator (SARC). The complainant and the accused are to have no contact after this point, Russell said.

“If the accused or the complainant had any questions about what is the process, what happens next, that SARC is their resource person through the entire process,” Russell said.

An investigator compiles a full report on the incident for Russell, and then she meets with the complainant to talk about the next step. This student could decide to pursue disciplinary action, criminal justice, or neither.

If the student decides not to pursue those options, the University can still move forward on either front without the student’s participation. Any disciplinary action through the Office of Residence Life must also be completed within the OCR’s 60-day timeframe.

“So it’s a very much refined way of shepherding a case from beginning to end in a way that we hope is humane and kind and just,” Russell said. “I think the thing that has been paramount in my mind throughout all of this is, what are we doing both in terms of what OCR asked of us but what we believe is right.”


Changes in ResLife

As the new Title IX process took effect, the University disciplinary process changed slightly as well to reflect the OCR’s recommendations.

Brian Coughlin, associate vice president for Student Affairs, and Kathleen O’Leary, director of Community Standard, applied the results of the OCR review to the sexual assault policy outlined in du Lac.

O’Leary said two significant changes to the disciplinary process took effect this semester.

The first change allows the complainant to ask to be in a separate room from the accused during the disciplinary hearing, O’Leary said.

“I think providing the complainant some reasonable alternatives to not be in the same room is bringing us up to speed with other institutions,” she said.

The second change involves the case review process after a disciplinary hearing. O’Leary said now either the complainant or the accused can request a case review “based on either a procedural defect that occurred during the disciplinary review process or based on the discovery of substantive new information that was unavailable to them at the time of the hearing.”

Previously, only the accused could request a case review.

O’Leary said her office has not dealt with any cases involving sexual assault yet this year, so she cannot gauge how effective these changes will be in the future.

After this summer’s changes, Coughlin said continuing to update the sexual assault policy reflects the fact that “sexual assault isn’t something that [only] happens to a University or a University community, but to an individual as well.”

Coughlin said he hoped the changes would improve the experience for everyone involved with the sexual assault policies.

“All in all, I think that what we’ve learned and how we’ve gone through the process is a really good thing,” Coughlin said. “I think that we hope that we do enough in terms of prevention and education that we won’t ever have to use it, but the reality is that we probably will.”


A ‘life-giving’ process

Though the changes are still new, Russell said early feedback on the new processes is positive.

“Both complainants and accused have commented on how helpful it has been to have a SARC, that sexual assault resource person who has been their first point of contact,” Russell said.

As she continues in her new position, Russell said she hopes for the process to be “life-giving” for the students who go through it.

Despite positive signs after one semester, Doyle said the University needs to continue to hold itself to a higher standard.

“Where would we like to be a year from now?” Doyle asked rhetorically. “We do need to have the community understand what the obligations are for reporting and the processes, but to my mind, the real conversations are the conversations that help us as a community to create the kind of community where sexual assault does not exist.”