The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



ND reviews sexual assault policies

Megan Doyle | Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Despite significant changes to Notre Dame’s sexual assault policies in the past two years, most students understand how to make a report of sexual harassment or sexual assault under the current system, according to a survey administered by the Office of Student Affairs last fall.

Vice president of Student Affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding and Deputy Title IX coordinator Dr. Bill Stackman released and discussed the results of the campus-wide survey last week with The Observer. While not every student completed every question, Harding estimated about 50 percent of the graduate and undergraduate student body responded to the October survey. 

Of the students surveyed, more than 75 percent claimed they knew how to report incidents of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct or sexual assault to the University’s administration, and more than 80 percent claimed familiarity with the University’s policies related to these incidents. 

But as Harding and Stackman reviewed the survey data and over 350 pages of additional comments from students, they said administrators did notice areas where their outreach related to sexual assault reporting needed to grow. 

“Our campus is not perfect, and we all need to work very hard to make it better,” Harding said. “As an institution and a community, though, good networks of support are in place and we have a solid process. One area we know we want to do more in is training and education. Done well, this will help us prevent incidents in the future.”

While more than 75 percent of undergraduates indicated the University responds effectively and fairly to these incidents, Harding said between 20 and 25 percent of the responders did know the answer to those questions on the survey. 

Harding said comments revealed two underlying trends in student concerns – a perceived double standard for student athletes in cases of sexual harassment or assault, and a perception of the system presuming the accused to be guilty as soon as the report is made. 

Harding described these perceptions as both “unequivocally not true” and “incorrect.” 

Even this year, Harding said Title IX investigations into these reports have found both the accused to be both guilty and innocent in different situations.

The survey also revealed some barriers for both victims and third parties who might file a report of sexual harassment or assault, Harding said. The most significant barriers for victims include not being comfortable discussing the details of the incident, fear of getting in trouble for other violations of University policy and fear their reputations would be damaged, based on 50 to 60 percent of responses.

For third parties, about 55 to 70 percent of responders reported similar barriers preventing them from reporting the assault – respecting the wishes of a victim who does not want to report, preferring to stay out of it and fear of getting in trouble for other violations of University policy. 

Harding cited a “Good Samaritan” policy from duLac, the student policy handbook, which encourages students to come forward with reports even if they might be in violation of other policies related to parietals or underage drinking. 

“The University will not pursue disciplinary action against a student who makes a complaint of sexual misconduct or sexual assault in connection with the reporting of that incident, or against students named as witnesses to the incident,” the policy states. 

These obstacles to reporting sexual assaults are not uniquely experienced at Notre Dame, Stackman said. 

I’ve been doing this work for over 30 years,” he said. “My sense in looking at these barriers, they are very similar to [those at] other colleges and universities. Nothing jumped out to me as a particularly unique barrier. Guilt and fear of embarrassment are consistent with what I’ve seen at other places. It is also common to not always know where to go or how to report it. We are all trying to work to mitigate these barriers, and I hope that conversations like this one will help make a difference in that respect.”

The survey also asked several questions in relation to what constitutes consent to participate in a sexual activity. Harding said over 90 percent of students understood the terms of consent and responded to the question correctly.

The survey did show the University could clarify the terms of consent with respect to a current dating or sexual relationship where consent cannot be assumed or agreement to a different form of sexual activity, when consent to one form of activity cannot be assumed for another. 

Some confusion also arose around the terms of consent with respect to incapacitation as well, Harding said. In University policy, a person incapacitated by drugs or alcohol is incapable of giving consent. 

As the administration continues its outreach and education, including hall staff training, in the future, Harding and Stackman said these barriers and issues of consent will be given strong consideration.

The Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Research circulated the survey via email in October. Harding said the survey was primarily “an ongoing piece of our education as a campus community.” 

The questions were also developed in response to an investigation in fall 2010 at Notre Dame by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education.

“When the University worked with the OCR a few years ago, we mutually discussed and agreed that a survey would be a valuable tool for Notre Dame and possibly other college campuses to start gathering information specifically on this issue,” Harding said. 

At the end of the OCR investigation in 2011, its officials released a public letter that both commended some of the University’s policies and offered suggestions for improvements. The University began to implement these recommendations at the same time as it adopted more sweeping reforms suggested by the Department of Education for colleges across the country, including the creation of a Deputy Title IX coordinator to directly handle all reports of sexual harassment or assault. This academic year was Stackman’s first in that position. 

“There are different components that the OCR has placed and mandated that colleges and universities do,” Stackman said. “I feel extremely good about the extent to which we’re doing it. We’ve got the bar for ourselves very high.”

As he prepares to conclude his first year in the Deputy Title IX Coordinator position, Stackman said he has seen the past two years of changes become more ingrained in the Notre Dame community. 

“Among other things, OCR requires that we provide effective education to our campus community,” he said. “We’re pushing that pretty hard and want to do even more in future years. The process also requires an investigation. We are on the side of pursuing even a nugget of information – if somebody feels like there’s a report and we’re not sure, we’ll go look at it to find out.

“I think we’re doing all of the right things.”

Harding agreed the survey reflected a growing understanding of the newer parts of the University’s policy.

“I feel best about the individual work we are doing to support students as part of the system, and I think we have a lot of really great features,” Harding said. 

“Are we always learning and always trying to improve? Yes.”

Contact Megan Doyle at   [email protected]