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Why this conversation can’t end

| Friday, April 24, 2015

As a renewed discussion of sexual assault heats up on campus following the screenings of CNN’s documentary “The Hunting Ground,” The Observer Editorial Board believes we must discuss the ways the faculty, staff and administrations of both Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s can respond.

In an email to Saint Mary’s students last Friday, Vice President of Student Affairs Karen Johnson stressed that Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s are two separate legal institutions that handle sexual assaults independently of one another. Sexual assaults committed on Notre Dame’s campus are handled by NDSP, while St. Joseph County Special Victims Unit handles those committed on Saint Mary’s campus. But writing off the two schools as separate legal entities isn’t helpful to fighting assault in both places. The fact is that while the two institutions are certainly separate, their communities are not.

Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s share a long history, and the administrations should collaborate as much as possible to ensure students are safe on both campuses.

Compared to the other schools presented in the “The Hunting Ground,” Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s have a unique relationship. Occurrences of sexual assault within separate jurisdictions can create a division that limits the possibility of combined investigative and reporting processes, but we do not have to separate how we assist survivors of sexual assault on both campuses.

Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s have the opportunity to lead a movement among college campuses of reporting and handling sexual assault cases honestly and effectively. Working together, our schools can create a system that encourages survivors to report all instances of sexual assault, something they are too often discouraged from doing.

We suggest the schools hire a shared third party legal counsel or additional Title IX coordinator to help the existing staff handle instances that include students at both schools. This will help ensure students will be protected no matter which school they attend or on which campus the assault occurs. Though the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s community as a whole must remember its responsibility to fight against a culture that allows sexual assault to persist, it is the duty of the administrations to work together toward lasting institutional change on how to deal with these tragedies when they occur.

Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s took the initiative to screen “The Hunting Ground” and host panel discussions about sexual assault on college campuses. The documentary features dozens of schools accused of mishandling allegations of sexual assault. The conversations created by the film and its screening are a commendable start, but they only matter if they lead to action.

We also feel the reporting of Clery Act crimes to students is a part of the ongoing conversation that demands immediate change. Though some records are available in the NDSP crime log, students are not given enough information about reported sexual assaults — especially Saint Mary’s students, who do not receive NDSP crime alerts unless they have taken a class at Notre Dame and have a Notre Dame email address. Students at both schools need to receive crime reports in a direct and timely manner to keep themselves safe and aware anywhere they go.

In years past, Saint Mary’s has posted Notre Dame crime alerts on its campus safety webpage, but the College has not done so in more than a year. Because there is so much overlap between the two campuses, Saint Mary’s students should receive the crime alerts Notre Dame students receive from NDSP and vice versa.

Additionally, we encourage faculty and staff to continue to speak up for their students and address sexual assault on both campuses. Each and every member of the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s community has the power to keep the conversation moving forward and push for real change.

With less than two weeks left in the semester, we urge students, faculty, staff and the administrations to work to fully address sexual assault on both campuses. Members of our community shouldn’t leave campus for the summer and lose sight of this issue that hurts us so deeply. For the administration, summer break should be an opportunity to revise current procedures to protect students and adequately prosecute crimes of sexual violence before students come back in the fall, not a time to let awareness drop. We encourage all members of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s to not only keep this discussion in mind throughout the coming months, but to participate actively in continuing to make our community the best it can be.

Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s may be two distinct legal entities, but we are one community. And as a Catholic community, we must not let the dialogue we have created peter out. Sexual assault is an undeniably critical issue, and when it affects one person in our community, it affects us all. We ask you, members of the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s community, not to let this conversation end when the school year does. Keep pressing it forward, and turn it into meaningful change.

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