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Title IX streamlined at ND

Megan Doyle | Thursday, August 23, 2012

The email that appeared in student inboxes Wednesday afternoon was the first of its kind this year, but it is not likely to be the last.

“Crime alert,” it read. “Sexual assault reported.”

The email informed students of the first assault reported on campus this year. It also arrived a little more than a year after the beginning of a new and more structured sexual assault policy at Notre Dame.

That subject line may be jarring, but associate vice president of Residence Life Heather Russell is familiar with reports of sexual assault on a college campus.

And she doesn’t mind if, for the moment, students are familiar with them too.

“I’m a firm believer that if we’re building a system that works … our students will know, and the numbers (of reports) will go right up,” Russell said. “That’s not in my opinion because there are more sexual assaults or sexual harassment cases on campus. It’s because people who previously would not have reported are now coming forward to report. And that’s what we actually hope will happen.”

In addition to her position at the head of Residence Life, Russell served as the University’s Deputy Title IX coordinator this past year. As the University adjusted its sexual assault policies to reflect new requirements from the federal government, she was the first point of contact for all reports of sexual assault on campus.

In the first year of the new policy, Russell said she handled eight reported cases of alleged sexual assault. Six additional cases of alleged sexual harassment, which include a variety of environmental concerns such as language or posters, were also brought to her office.

Those numbers significantly exceeded the staff’s expectations for the number of reports this past year, Russell said.

“I think in terms of setting the right expectations, the timeline and the process, students knew what to expect,” Russell said. “Students didn’t seem surprised who went through the process. I believe we had really good communication throughout the process, and we were timely in our investigations and our decisions.”

Making adjustments

A report of sexual assault begins with a conversation. Last year, the University’s new policy laid out guidelines for bringing that conversation to Russell’s attention for a Title IX investigation.

Some sources – members of Campus Ministry, health professionals at St. Liam’s or local hospitals, counselors – could keep the conversation confidential.
Others – resident assistants, professors, law enforcement – were required to bring such conversations to Russell’s attention.

“Rectors were considered confidential sources last year,” Russell said. “This year, OCR [the (Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education]) has asked us to keep all hall staff in the same category.”

After Russell learns of an assault, she said the investigation must be conducted within 60 days. In that time period, Russell issues a no-contact order between the accused and the accuser, and each party is assigned a sexual assault resource coordinator (SARC) to help him or her through the process of the investigation.

Sometimes this process involved a series of interviews to describe the reported assault to Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP), a Title IX investigator and the ResLife disciplinary investigators.

“What I consistently heard was it was a little overwhelming for our students, both the complainant and the accused, to go through what felt like a repeat process,” Russell said.

Now, the interview process will be more streamlined and less repetitive, Russell said. If both parties have been interviewed by NDSP, they do not need to repeat those interviews with more investigators in Russell’s office.

“We’re cutting out that middle process,” she said.

Breaking a trend

In April 2011, all universities and colleges also received a message about sexual assault. This one came in the form of the “Dear Colleague” letter issued last spring by the OCR.

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 fund. The letter required the University to create Russell’s position and develop a more clearly outlined investigation process for sexual assault.

Russell said OCR penned the letter and changed the federal regulations to combat the trend of “bad actors,” or repeat perpetrators of sexual assault.

“So [if] a student assaults one of our students, there is a high likelihood that that student will hurt somebody else,” Russell said. “So even though that student who was assaulted may not want to pursue the case, if we don’t pursue it, another one of our students may be at risk.”

Previously, Russell said Notre Dame’s policy allowed the victim of an assault to determine whether he or she wanted to pursue disciplinary or criminal action against the accused. If a victim requested not to go forward with any penalties, the case would automatically be closed.

In the letter, OCR required universities to pursue cases against any individuals who might be a bad actor, even if the victim did not want to open an investigation for university discipline or criminal justice.

“The fear across the country was that what that ‘Dear Colleague’ letter was asking would inadvertently have a chilling effect on reports of sexual assault or sexual harassment on a college campus,” Russell said.

Instead, the increase in reports showed an opposite effect. And despite the high possibility of bad actors, Russell said she did not work with a single case that involved a repeat offender this past year.

“The reason the guidelines were put in place was to ferret out those kinds of people, and as of yet, in one year testing the guidelines, we did not see that here,” Russell said.

A veteran advocate for sexual assault prevention, Russell said she was not surprised by the trend she did discover in this year’s reports – alcohol abuse in connection with sexual assault.

“I’m happy to say we didn’t find [that trend at Notre Dame],” Russell said. “What we found to be a trend is what we knew to be a trend even before this year, which is in cases of sexual assault on our campus typically alcohol is involved with at least one of the parties, sometimes with both parties.”

Looking ahead

This week marked the beginning of the policy’s second year in operation, but it also is the end of Russell’s tenure ae Deputy Title IX Coordinator. As she returns her focus to Residence Life, Dr. Bill Stackman will assume control of sexual assault investigations.

Stackman will officially begin his job as the associate vice president for Student Services on Monday.

“We’d like to get to the place where Title IX is less about our reaction to cases and more about a comprehensive model that has to do with prevention, education, intervention and response,” Russell said. “And [Stackman] is a person well equipped to do that.”

Russell said her time as a shepherd for the new policy was demanding but positive.

“It was a fantastic part of the position not because I want those things to happen, but because it’s great to be able to be present to students in those kinds of situations and help see they get the resources they need and help bring things to closure for them.