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Panel discusses ‘The Hunting Ground’

| Monday, April 20, 2015

CNN’s documentary “The Hunting Ground” was shown at the Browning Cinema in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC) on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., accompanied by a panel discussion after both screenings.

“The Hunting Ground,” which focuses on sexual assaults on elite college campuses across the country, prominently features Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s.

In particular, the film highlights the case of Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeberg, a former first-year student at Saint Mary’s, who committed suicide after an alleged sexual assault by a member of the Notre Dame football team. Lizzy’s father, Tom Seeberg, was interviewed in the film, along with two other former Saint Mary’s students and former NDSP officer Lt. Pat Cottrell.

The Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) previously sponsored a showing of the film April 9 at Saint Mary’s, which College president Carol Ann Mooney attended and sat in the audience during the panel discussion that followed the screening.

After the Friday night showings, panels of three individuals representing faculty, staff and students sat down to speak and answer questions from the audience. Jim Collins, professor and chair of the department of film, television and theatre, moderated both panels.

After the 9:30 p.m. showing, student body president emeritus Lauren Vidal, associate director of gender studies Abby Palko and director of the Gender Relations Center (GRC) Christine Caron Gebhardt discussed their reactions to the film and fielded questions.

One student inquired as to whether the University had a comment on the recent Huffington Post article detailing a Title IX discrimination lawsuit filed against the University. University spokesperson Dennis Brown, who was not on the panel but spoke from the audience, said the lawsuit did not have to do with the film’s topic of sexual assault.

“What they were reporting on is a discrimination and harassment complaint that was made to the office of civil rights,” Brown said. “It has nothing to do with a sexual assault complaint. The Huffington Post article paired it with ‘The Hunting Ground’ as if it was a sexual assault complaint, and it was not.”

Several audience members expressed their concern that no members of the University administration were sitting on the panel. In response, Gebhardt stated she is a member of the administration as director of the GRC and said the panel was constructed purposefully.

“We could have had 20 people [on the panel], and we didn’t necessarily want to do that. [Notre Dame’s Deputy Title IX Coordinator] Melissa [Lindley] is more than willing to address questions, and other folks are here willing to address questions,” Gebhardt said.

Junior Brett O’Connell asked the panel what they thought could be done about the lack of adequate communication between students and the administration. (Editor’s note: Brett O’Connell is a Sports writer for The Observer.)

“There is a clear adversarial relationship between administration and students, both portrayed in the film and apparently the question panel that follows the film … I want to engage with how we can broaden the channels of communication between students, faculty, staff and administration in order to allow a more cooperative environment for us to work in,” O’Connell said. “What kind of ideas do you guys have that might allow us to not function as adversaries and to really pursue a more creative, more inventive solution as a community of college students, academics and staff?”

Vidal answered that she felt the solution would require work from not only the administration but also from the students.

“I think that this feels as though I’m an administrator sitting on this panel, but I’m a student,” she said. “I think it starts at the ground level. Students need to be willing to have the conversation — to email administrators, to email the faculty, to come to the student government office.

“I get caught up in my assignments and my daily life, so when things happen — these big conversations blow up on our campus — everyone looks retrospectively and thinks, ‘Why didn’t we have this conversation sooner? Why didn’t we make connections sooner?’ and I think it’s our responsibility to draw those lines of communication, but I would encourage the faculty and administrators to continue to reach out to students, to open up these town hall meetings and to create more of an environment for conversation.

“You can’t put the responsibility just on students or just on faculty and staff — I think it needs to be a unified effort, and that’s what tonight is about. It’s about acknowledging this very large question, this very large and upsetting conversation, and opening the floor.”

Many members of the audience said they felt the process for reporting sexual assaults on campus is unclear and inadequate and lacks enough support for victims or information about their options.

“When a report is made, there is an investigation, and that is done by a third-party attorney who then does fact-finding related to the victim or the survivor, who makes the complaint, the respondent and the witnesses, and then it comes back to the Title IX office,” Gebhardt said in response. “And then Melissa [Lindley] sits down and says to the victim, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to go forward to the Office of Community Standards? Do you want to stop?’

“I think it’s really important that students know the choices that they have; for some students, they want to tell their story to somebody confidentially. Others, they want to tell their story publicly. And I hope we’re creating a culture where students can share their stories through things like ‘A Time to Heal’ dinner and Take Back the Night, but I would say that the reporting process is the way in which, if a students wants it investigated, there will be an investigation.”

Gebhardt later commented that she had not had any students pursue criminal charges against their assailants.

“When I sit down with a survivor or victim, they are notified that they have the option to go through the criminal process, and then oftentimes they will not want to do that,” she said. “NDSP does send over the reports to the prosecutor’s office, and the prosecutor’s office decides whether it will take it up or not.

“And I think one of the questions we have to ask is that if people don’t use the criminal process, why do they not use it? Do they feel the criminal process is an option for them? We try to make it clear that it is an option for them to pursue.

“They can do that either simultaneous with a Title IX, [or] they can put off our Title IX in order to pursue the criminal [process]. I would definitely say that we encourage that. I have not had anyone take us up on that,” she said.

One audience member pointed out “The Hunting Ground” also contains statistics on the numbers of reported sexual assaults relative to expulsions at several universities, but those figures do not include Notre Dame. When asked whether she had information about that statistic at the University, Gebhardt said she had not seen the relevant numbers.

“I don’t have those. That should be in the NDSP Clery Report that gets sent to you every year,” she said. “… But [the report] doesn’t have the expulsion rate, and I don’t have that information. … I can’t speak on behalf of the University and say [the statistics are] never [available], but I’d be happy to bring that forward and say that something folks were wondering about tonight was about expulsions.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Saint Mary’s College president Carol Ann Mooney sat on the April 9 panel following a screening of “The Hunting Ground” at Saint Mary’s. Mooney attended the screening and panel discussion, but was not a member of the panel. The Observer regrets this error.

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About Margaret Hynds

Margaret is a senior Political Science major and the former Editor-in-Chief of The Observer. She hails from Washington, D.C., and is a former Phox of Pangborn Hall. Follow Margaret on Twitter @MargaretHynds

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