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Administrations respond to sexual assault

TORI ROECK | Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sexual assault response and prevention have been integral components of the Notre Dame and the Saint Mary’s student government administrations this semester. 

Notre Dame student body president Alex Coccia said a “sense of urgency” seized both campuses at the beginning of the school year when students received two campus-wide emails in one weekend reporting a rape and an attempted rape. 

These announcements came as a shock to the Notre Dame community, Coccia said, and both student government administrations responded with increased programming concerning sexual assault.

“I think what we realized with the emails and the conversation that happened at the beginning of the year was that we can have a greater role in addressing this issue,” he said, “and, in fact, if we’re actually going to address it to a point where we start to change attitudes and culture, it’s got to come from students.”

Coccia said after students received the third sexual assault email of the semester, student government initiated prayer services at the Grotto following every campus-wide email. He said this decision formalized an idea developed in Campus Life Council.

“With the prayer services, I think we view them in two different ways,” he said. “For one, it’s a moment of healing for people who need it, and I think it does show that there are many in the community who are healing and want healing. 

“At the same time, it’s also an action that shows immense solidarity, and for the people who show up, it says that there are a lot of people who want to have this conversation and who want to make things change. 

“But it certainly is a prayer service, and it certainly is a time of reflection on the issue. The three that we’ve had have been really beautiful, well-attended, and the fact that students are the ones running the prayer services and the ones preparing the reflections and the call to actions is all the more powerful.”

Coccia said Keenan Hall rector Noel Terranova and Fr. Pete McCormick are working to finalize the format of the prayer services for future administrations.

Notre Dame student body vice president Nancy Joyce said conversations in Senate regarding sexual assault have raised awareness of the issue on campus and have helped student government to implement other initiatives.

“Senate has been a really interesting means of talking about [sexual assault] because one, it’s a lot of younger students, a lot of underclassmen, and also it’s a group of 50 people that come from a lot of different places and a lot of different perspectives,” Joyce said. 

“I have spoken to some of them who have said that they have had conversations with their friends. At the end of the day, to me at least, as the chair of Senate, that’s what I want to have happened. I want people to see this as enough of an issue that they go talk to their friends about it, and if they talk to three friends about it and 50 people do that, well, there you go, that’s 150 people.”

Senate played a role in amending the text of the campus-wide emails sent by Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) to say “sexual battery” instead of “forcible fondling” and to be more respectful to victims of sexual assault, Joyce said.

“In thinking about ‘forcible fondling’ versus ‘sexual battery,’ … even though ‘forcible fondling’ is a legal term, that is just something that people associate with something humorous for some reason or another,” she said. “The other piece of it is that the emails are not personal enough which I think is something that’s inherent a little bit in an email communication to the whole student body. 

“It’s going to be somewhat impersonal, but I think it’s something that’s gotten better. The last part of it was that the wording at the end of the email was sort of suggestive of the victim or survivor being somewhat responsible.”

Junior Monica Daegele, student government’s director of gender issues, worked with NDSP and with Title IX coordinator Dr. Bill Stackman to institute the changes, Joyce said. 

Another result of conversations in Senate was a student-only discussion about sexual assault, which took place Nov. 20, Joyce said. She said the meeting helped to organize students interested in promoting sexual-assault prevention in preparation for student government’s “One is Too Many” door-to-door pledge campaign, set to begin in January.

“The motivation behind [the student-only discussion] was a couple things: one, to get people in a room who don’t typically talk about [sexual assault] or who have a lot of sway in their dorms and might be able to add to the conversation but don’t normally have those kinds of conversations, and then also to start building our group of people who are going to help us with the campaign,” Joyce said. 

Coccia said of the 70 attendants that night, 40 signed up to lead door-to-door discussions for the “One is Too Many” campaign, while all 70 agreed to volunteer in some other way.

“We were really excited because I think the conversation there was very genuine,” he said. “I think people brought up the types of concerns and reflections that we imagined would also come up in these one-on-one conversations for the pledge campaign, and so I think it was a good preview for us, in terms of gauging what that conversation looks like.”

For the Saint Mary’s Student Government Association (SGA), sexual assault prevention programming began before school even started, student body president Kat Sullivan said. All leaders within SGA received green-dot training, a national certification program for preventing sexual violence, she said.

This year, green-dot training was expanded to athletes as well, student body vice president Maddy Martin said. Members of the College’s basketball and volleyball teams received the training in order to act as better bystanders in situations where there is a risk of sexual assault, she said.

Martin said this year’s administration wanted to incorporate similar training into first-year orientation.

“Student government wasn’t really present in regards to Welcome Week, so we wanted to make sure that we, as leaders, were seen as soon as our first years came on campus,” she said. “So we wanted to, again, be able to promote stuff that they may face, coming in as first years. And we thought that this was a great way to implement our leadership and help them out, so they could come to us.”

During Welcome Week, student government led Know the Facts presentations about alcohol, sexual assault, depression and anxiety, Sullivan said.

“I feel like being a freshman in college, you’re 18, you’re finally considered an adult, so it’s important for us to have that open and honest discussion about these sorts of issues,” she said. “We’re not here to baby you. You’re taking control of your own life.”

Sullivan said she thinks student government should inform students of the resources already available on campus for dealing with sexual assault.

“We realized that it’s really important for us to emphasize the resources that are already available,” she said. “We don’t want to be repetitive with what the students already have, and so we really want to piggy back on [the Belles Against Violence Office] and make sure that we’re helping advertise and promote their events, because we are such a presence on campus.

“I think that [sexual assault] is a major social issue in general, and, especially coming from a women’s college, it’s important that we are familiar with this issue and how to address it.”

Contact Tori Roeck at [email protected]