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COR: Kirk clarifies role of Office of Residence Life

John Tierney | Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Office of Residence Life (ORL) is charged with educating students, not with punishing them, according to associate vice president of Residence Life Bill Kirk, a 1984 graduate of Notre Dame who spoke at Tuesday’s Council of Representatives (COR) meeting at the request of Student Body President Bob Reish.

“[ORL] is not about the minimal expectations of society, it’s not about treating everyone the same,” Kirk said. “It is much more about an attempt by the University to try to help in the formation of the students in their education. Our primary role is education.”

Much of ORL’s role in the educational process is overshadowed by the perception that the office is only focused on discipline, but Kirk said that the office’s disciplinary measures serve a greater purpose.

“Quite obviously, they deal with discipline, but it’s about education, it’s about formation, it’s about trying to assist students in coming to understand that their actions have consequences,” he said.

Kirk is not personally involved in disciplinary hearings, contrary to popular perception, as he is not involved in the day-to-day procedures of the ORL, he said.

“I supervise the administration of that office.”

ORL is directly supervised by Jeff Shoup, the Director of the Office of Residence Life and Housing. It is Shoup who runs disciplinary hearings, Kirk said.

Kirk said he understands that he and the ORL are not well liked by students, but he said that he hopes that his appearance at the COR meeting will help to clear up some of the misunderstandings about his role at Notre Dame.

Despite his assumed unpopularity among many students, Kirk said it is an “absolute delight to teach and be around” students.

He received a favorable reaction from most COR members, especially after he was given a chance to articulate his view of the mission of Residence Life.

“It’s very clear that you have the best interests of the students and the community at heart,” sophomore class president Cynthia Weber said.

Kirk said that one of the key roles in Residence Life’s educational mission is instilling a sense that actions have consequences in students. Actions “really do have an impact on the rest of the community,” Kirk said.

Understanding this reality is important for the idea of living in a community that the University embraces, according to Kirk.

“The sense of community is very important” at Notre Dame, he said.

One important disciplinary role filled by ORL that is often overlooked is in regards to cases of sexual assault.

Weber said many members of the sophomore class were most interested in the University’s policies in regards to sexual assault, especially in light of the University’s ban on premarital sexual intercourse.

Kirk said that the University has two unrelated rules.

“One deals with sexual misconduct and the ways that you can be charged with sexual assault,” while the other is concerned with premarital intercourse, he said.

“When an allegation of sexual assault is raised, the University says we’re going to deal with that really important allegation,” Kirk said.

The University will not punish either party for premarital intercourse if an allegation of assault is raised, even if the individuals engaged in consensual intercourse prior to the alleged incident of assault, he said.

Cases of sexual assault are incidents in which the University often believes that further education of the perpetrator is impossible.

“If someone sexually assaults someone, that’s not a person we believe we can educate any more,” he said.

He said it is often difficult to establish the truth in an alleged sexual assault incident, unlike in most cases that Residence Life hears, which often regard alcohol-related offenses.

“Getting to what happened [in cases of sexual assault] is going to be very difficult,” Kirk said. “It’s not a situation where anyone is ever going to be happy.”

In cases that are not related to sexual assault, the facts of the case are generally clear-cut, he said. “There are very few circumstances where there’s ever a question of what actually happened,” he said. “Virtually always, there’s a recognition among the students in the room that they engaged in this behavior, but there’s almost always disagreement as to what the appropriate response is.”

“I think that reasonable people can disagree whether [Residence Life’s sanctions] are effective, whether they do what we want them to do,” Kirk said.

Off-campus safety was an important topic in COR’s discussion with Kirk. Kirk said off-campus security is the responsibility of South Bend Police, not of the University.

Notre Dame Security Police’s jurisdiction only extends on campus and “on roads that run through and around campus,” Kirk said. Therefore, NDSP is unable to “go and do police and law enforcement things elsewhere in the county,” he said. This jurisdiction is set by Indiana state law.

Kirk said that contrary to perception, South Bend police “are remarkably student-friendly.”

“They treat students with great respect and restraint, especially when the students they’re dealing with generally have some level of intoxication,” Kirk said.

Also, contrary to popular belief, South Bend Police were not responsible for the Colfax Street raid on Sept. 21, according to Kirk, where 37 people were arrested. The Indiana State Excise Police and the St. Joseph County Police conducted the raid.

“South Bend almost never brings anything to the University’s attention, makes arrests or issue citations [for alcohol],” Kirk said. “I can’t remember the last time I learned of an underage drinking arrest or a violation of a noisy house ordinance that came from the South Bend police.”

Kirk said that the primary role of the South Bend Police Department is not to prevent underage drinking. However, that is an important role of the excise police, which is charged to “enforce laws regarding the use and abuse of alcohol,” according to Kirk.

“I’ve seen the excise police deal with students very respectfully,” Kirk said. “The excise police are doing what their mission is calling them to do.”

While Kirk described the Colfax Street raid as “unfortunate,” he said that he understands the actions of the police forces. “I don’t like it when students have to go to jail,” he said. “But I understand our local police departments’ hesitation about releasing 30-some odd intoxicated people out into the night.”

Kirk said that Notre Dame expects a higher standard from its students that merely obedience to the law. Therefore, the University is able to discipline students for their actions off-campus, even when they are also punished by civil authorities.

“You’ve chosen to be part of a pretty special group of people – Notre Dame students,” Kirk said. “We have a higher standard that, generally speaking, virtually all of our students are in favor of.”

“When the University finds out [about an off-campus offense,] the University has an interest in you as a person,” he said. “If you’re routinely becoming drunk, that’s a problem – it’s immoral, unethical, and wrong.”

The actions of law enforcement will not help the student change his or her behavior, according to Kirk.

“A public citation isn’t going to call you to examine the role of alcohol in your life,” he said. But he hopes that a disciplinary hearing will have that effect.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every student comes away saying ‘I’m going to reflect on my drinking,'” Kirk said. “But I can tell you that there have been dozens of occasions in the past couple years where students tell me that it has.”