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Addressing sexual assault is our priority

| Friday, November 20, 2015

The documentary “The Hunting Ground” tells an appalling story: Students on college campuses assault other students in the most intimate of ways. It’s happening across America. Yes, it happens in Notre Dame, Indiana. The documentary declares that college and university administrations do not care. As Vice President for Student Affairs at Saint Mary’s College for 10 years, I can attest to the fact that President Carol Ann Mooney’s administration cares very much. Saint Mary’s College prepares students to make a difference in the world. As leaders of this undergraduate women’s college, it is our priority to address the problem of sexual assault. We will make a difference for our students.

Before I arrived, President Mooney initiated first-year student orientation programming on the dangers that come with college life, including sexual assault. In 2009, Saint Mary’s College was the first women’s college in the nation to apply for and receive a grant from the Department of Justice to start an office on campus dedicated to violence prevention and support for women. As a result, the Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) opened in the fall of 2010. BAVO provides students with education about sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking; informs them of reporting procedures and resources for survivors and their friends; and engages students in community-based conversation. When the three-year grant ended, the College devoted budget dollars to sustain the office because of its demonstrated value to students. In addition, we have trained employees to assist a survivor of a sexual assault with next steps.

In April, we screened “The Hunting Ground” on campus. The film struck a chord with our students in a profound and immediate way. Students told us what we do is not enough. To get to the bottom of what we could do better, President Mooney announced the formation of a taskforce, a move reserved for the most important issues. It is only the second time that she has formed a taskforce in her tenure as president.

The President’s Taskforce on Sexual Assault, which consists of students, faculty, staff and administrators, will meet for the third time on Friday. We meet monthly. At our first meeting President Mooney established three subcommittees: Education, Procedures and Support. These subcommittees will help the taskforce address these issues:

  • What steps can Saint Mary’s take to reduce sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence against our students?
  • In what ways can Saint Mary’s improve the College’s procedures for handling claims of sexual assault and sexual violence?
  • How can Saint Mary’s better support our students who have survived some form of sexual violence?

The task force will deliver a full report to the Saint Mary’s community in May 2016. In the meantime, here are some subjects we are discussing:

  • That the College look into more peer-to-peer training and that more personnel on campus be trained as care advocates;
  • That the three campuses of Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame and Holy Cross share procedures to simplify the process of reporting sexual assaults;
  • That the College offer counseling services on the weekend and in the evenings in addition to the existing business hours.

These suggestions are just the beginning of our work.

I would like to thank the Saint Mary’s students who have held student panel discussions on sexual assault. I commend The Observer’s editors and writers for taking on the tough subject of sexual assault in a responsible and meaningful way. I assure you administrators are listening to student voices. As I said, it is this administration’s priority to address the problem of sexual assault. We will make a difference for our students.


Karen Johnson

Vice President for Student Affairs

Saint Mary’s

Nov. 17

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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