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Student government responds to sexual assaults

Tori Roeck | Friday, October 11, 2013

CRIME ALERT: Sexual Assault Reported. 

Every time a sexual assault is reported on campus, this blunt message appears in students’ inboxes, but student government leaders at both Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s are working to humanize the issue of sexual assault and improve the student body’s response to these inhuman crimes. 

Alex Coccia, Notre Dame student body president, said recent sexual assault reports motivated student government to act on the issue.

“We had always considered it part of our platform to work specifically with the Committee for Sexual Assault Prevention and [Vice President for Student Affairs] Erin Hoffmann Harding, but I think the immediacy and volume of the alerts that we received early on in the year sort of made us rethink about the conversation and ultimately has led us to decide that this is really our administrative priority for the rest of the year,” Coccia said. 

Kat Sullivan, Saint Mary’s student body president, said the increase in emails indicates an increase in reporting, which is a positive sign for the community, but she was particularly concerned about how students reacted to the reports.

“I think people were frightened, and I think that people understand that sexual assault is an issue across the world, but it’s hard to really fully understand and be fully affected by it until it’s someone that you know and a member of our community,” Sullivan said. “So I think that they were frightened but again what I keep emphasizing is that it means that people are reporting it. It means that people are seeking out help.”

‘Is this normal?’

Vice president of campus safety Mike Seamon said the amount of sexual assaults reported so far this year conforms to national trends.

“One is too many, no matter what. One reported sexual assault is too many. But if you look at probably the national averages over the last several years, national as in not just Notre Dame, and the numbers in the first eight weeks, the first two months of school is when you’ll see an influx,” Seamon said. “… And if you look at Notre Dame’s numbers, although you can see clusters of reported events like we have [seen] in the last couple of weeks our numbers tend to be over the last three or four years pretty consistent.

“And it doesn’t mean that we expect that to remain the same but because we’ve had a cluster over the last two weeks, or three weeks, or month, I think that is following national trends, and it’s also following what Notre Dame has seen in the past several years.”

While she acknowledges that Notre Dame’s numbers may be on trend, Notre Dame vice president Nancy Joyce said student government is not satisfied with this.

“I think one of the biggest things is that the first three emails were all reports of either rape or attempted rape, and I think that really caught people’s attention. That was something different than we had seen in the past,” Joyce said. “And then to have three within the first two, three weeks, I think that was the biggest thing because as seniors, we have not seen that. 

“And then you’ve got the underclassmen and they’re response is, ‘What is this? Is this normal?’ I think it’s a great opportunity for us to set the tone for the underclassmen that this isn’t normal or we’re not going to accept it as normal on our campus, but also then to help use the upperclassmen’s sense of, ‘This is new; this is different’ to sort of change the way that we’re talking about sexual assault on our campus.”

Setting the Tone

At its Sept. 18 meeting, Notre Dame Student Senate passed a resolution making Student Government more responsible for sexual assault on campus.

The resolution states, “Whereas, recognizing that these occurrences are a leadership failure … [we admit] that as leaders in our community, we have not been doing enough to change the way we, as a community, concern ourselves with these issues.”

Coccia said through this resolution, student government wanted to utilize its potential for change to better address sexual assault.

“We recognize that if we’re in the room with senators and people who are representatives of their dorm, people who are elected representatives of the student body and people who are appointed representatives because of all of their passion and interest in serving the student body, we have so much potential in that room to get a conversation going,” he said, “and I think that was the purpose of that resolution was to recognize that before we move forward with anything we have to recognize our own failures.”

Joyce said admitting student government’s responsibility to protect the community from sexual violence opens the door for change.

“It’s a conscious decision that we have to take some sense of ownership over this issue and hold ourselves accountable, hold each other accountable, otherwise it’s just not going to change,” she said. “It was an interesting debate but I was really pleased that that went through Senate because I think that was important for us to have a conversation where we’re recognizing that it’s on us, it’s on our shoulders. It’s not administrators. It’s no one other than students.”

Sullivan said student government is best suited for advising the student body on sexual assault, and she takes that responsibility seriously.

“I think the biggest thing as student government that we can do is reassure the community that … what we can ultimately do to stop the cycle of sexual violence is making sure that we’re watching out for the other members of our community,” she said.

Response and Prevention

Coccia said student government immediately responded to the sexual assault reports by instituting prayer services at the Grotto and changing the wording in report emails from the Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) to say “sexual battery” instead of “forcible fondling.”

“The benefit we see in [the prayer services] is it’s an immediate tangible thing for people to do following an email,” he said. “And obviously it’s not enough, but viewing that as an action that can spark dialogue, can spark healing, is extremely important as we move forward.”

Coccia said student government is helping to publicize events for October as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, such as the Gender Relations Center’s “A Time to Heal Dinner,” which will take place Oct. 29.

Sullivan said Saint Mary’s student government worked together with the Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) on the One in Four Vigil, which took place Oct. 1. The event highlighted the statistic that one in four college women has been a victim of sexual violence by giving out 400 T-shirts to represent a fourth of the Saint Mary’s student body, she said.

“I think that having a large showing for that really speaks volumes for our community because it’s important that these assaults are getting reported,” Sullivan said. “… I think the stigma is disintegrating and students are feeling more comfortable voicing what they’ve been through because there are others that have kind of led the way with that by being brave and seeking help when they need it.”

Sullivan said her administration began combatting sexual assault by running 

Know the Facts Training for first-year students during orientation and requiring that student leaders receive green dot training, a national certification program for preventing sexual violence.

“When there’s some sort of questionable situation, you’re worried about your friend going off with someone else – that’s called a red dot. And so the green dot is that you directly intervene, you distract the other person or you delegate and get someone else to help,” she said. 

Joyce said she wants to launch a “grassroots” campaign against sexual assault that will focus more on preventing the crime on campus.

“As helpful as the administrators that we’ve worked with have been and as cooperative as NDSP and others have been, at the end of the day they can’t make the changes that need to be made,” she said. “We’re really hoping to work with leaders within each of the dorms to kind of start the conversation there. I’m a big believer in using the structure that we already have, which is the hall system, to sort of shape how we approach this.”

One way the community can make a significant impact in ending sexual violence is just being supportive, Sullivan said.

“The fact that this is mental health awareness week, with Support a Belle, Love a Belle, [we want to let] the girls know who have struggled and have had to experience sexual violence that we are here for them,” she said.

Contact Tori Roeck at vroeck@nd.edu