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Getting serious about sexual assault

The Observer Editorial | Friday, September 14, 2012

We have to admit it. When we got the emails Monday and Tuesday night, we laughed. When Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) alerted students to two separate reports of “forcible fondling” within 24 hours of each other, we chuckled to ourselves and then shrugged it off.
The alliteration seemed to be begging for a witty tweet. Our best puns seemed too good not to be shared with our followers and friends. On Monday night, we giggled. On Tuesday night, the jokes seemed to fall into our laps.
We have to admit it – we laughed.
And now we have to think about it. For one person on campus, each crime alert wasn’t a joke. It was a reminder of a situation that was probably scary and scarring. And that’s an alliteration that isn’t quite as hilarious.
In April 2011, the Department of Education asked all colleges and universities to update their guidelines on how to handle reports of sexual assault. The department’s new requirements were meant to streamline investigations, encourage reporting of these incidents and to identify “bad actors,” or repeated perpetrators of sexual assault.
After the changes prompted by those new requirements, the beginning of this school year was also the beginning of Notre Dame’s second year with its most updated sexual assault policy. In August, The Observer reported eight cases of alleged sexual assault had been investigated in the policy’s first year. Six additional cases of alleged sexual harassment, which include a variety of environmental concerns such as language or posters, were also investigated throughout the year. That number greatly exceeded the number of expected reports, but the administration saw that as positive because victims were speaking up, rather than remaining silent.
NDSP is required by law to alert students to crime on campus, including any incidents of sexual assault or harassment reported directly to their department. The language in these reports is standardized to identify what crime happened as clearly as possible. Other reports of sexual assault or harassment might not be reported through NDSP alerts if they are directed to administrators like Dr. Bill Stackman, the University’s Deputy IX Coordinator who oversees every investigation of alleged sexual crime on campus.
These measures – a new sexual assault policy, a responsible system of communication – are in place to make us more aware of what happens on our campus. Every time we get those crime reports, we breeze through the standard warnings, the disclaimers about being safe. But they say more than we realize – almost every sexual crime committed on a college campus is motivated by alcohol and is committed by an acquaintance.
Translate that sentence. Almost every incident of unwanted sexual contact, whether it’s inappropriate groping in a sweaty, semi-lit dorm room or a dance-floor kiss that suddenly goes too far, happens because we’re binge drinking, and it happens with someone we know. Someone we see in class or in the dining hall, not someone who jumps out from behind a bush on the quad and attacks.
That thought isn’t meant to make us scared. It’s meant to inform us. These email alerts aren’t meant to entertain us. They’re meant to help us protect ourselves and our friends.
Laughing about “forcible fondling” might make the freshman who overheard you guffawing think the way someone touched her at a dorm party wasn’t a big deal. Joking about NDSP crime alerts might let new students assume those emails are the norm after a home football weekend of tailgating and gameday fun. Mocking these reports might discourage a victim of sexual assault from approaching someone who can help him or her in the aftermath of what is a very real and harmful crime.
That’s not who we are. That’s not Notre Dame.
The University has worked to dramatically improve its sexual assault policies in the past few years. As students, we need to take reports of sexual crimes seriously, and we need to be open to mature discussion about the ways we can prevent these incidents in a college environment. We need to join in that effort to make Notre Dame a place where sexual assault and harassment does not happen. It’s a huge goal, and it’s not going to be easy. But our punny tweets and callous jokes can only stand in the way of getting there.
We have to admit it – we laughed. We now have to admit this situation isn’t actually funny at all.