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Notre Dame explores process for sexual assault

| Monday, November 16, 2015

Sexual-Assault-Graphic-WEBSusan Zhu

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a five-part series on sexual assault at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Today’s stories focus on the process for students reporting sexual assaults.

Over the past year, the University’s administration, Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) and the Special Victims Unit (SVU) of St. Joseph County have implemented policies to revise and raise awareness about the process of reporting, investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults.

Heather Ryan, Deputy Title IX Coordinator, said Notre Dame students reporting a sexual assault have the option to pursue a complaint through the University Conduct Process or law enforcement. A victim can choose to pursue both options, concurrently or one after the other.

“The University takes every single one of these reports extremely seriously, and we must and do investigate every single one that comes to our attention, where we have enough information to pursue an investigation,” Erin Hoffmann Harding, vice president of Student Affairs, said.

Hoffmann Harding also said the University has a number of confidential resources on and off campus for students who have been sexually assaulted, including the University Counseling Center (UCC), University Health Services (UHS), the vowed religious in the Campus Ministry office and the Family Justice Center.

The Deputy Title IX Coordinator is informed of all sexual assaults reported by students to non-confidential University resources, Ryan said.

“I try to give students as many opportunities to make choices as I can,” she said. “As we receive information and I have someone come to my office, it involves sitting down, talking through what the possible next steps are, as we look at the information we have at hand.”

Ryan said her first priority is to provide a student with the resources he or she needs. Students, both those filing complaints and those responding to complaints, are assigned to resource coordinators — trained Notre Dame faculty or administrators who will help explain the reporting options and the available support services.

If a student identifies a suspect, the University will open an administrative investigation, Ryan said. However, an investigation will not always be referred to the University Conduct Process, she said.

“At the end of the process, the person [who filed the complaint] … has the opportunity to make a decision about whether or not we pursue the University Conduct Process,” Ryan said. “Then, if they choose not to pursue that, we do have another board that will look at the information and make a final decision.”

“We assess risk and look at impact on community, potential impacts on other people to determine if we ultimately want it to go to the University Conduct Process,” she said.

Keri Kei Shibata, deputy chief of NDSP, said the criminal investigation process starts with similar discussions. NDSP has an obligation to tell the Deputy Title IX Coordinator if a student reports a sexual assault to them, she said.

“We’re going to have the same conversation about using us as an option and how this process would go,” Shibata said. “We’re going to investigate. We are impartial. We are trying to find the facts.”

NDSP’s trained law enforcement investigators are experienced, Shibata said, allowing them to conduct investigations in the most efficient and effective way possible.

“The captain of our investigative unit came from the FBI,” she said. “One of our other investigators, a sergeant, was formerly in charge of a Special Victims Unit in Elkhart. … The team has a lot of experience, both on and off campus.”

Shibata said investigations for sexual assault cases include interviews with the suspect, victims and any witnesses. The investigators also look for physical evidence or electronic evidence, such as text messages or photos.

“We’re looking for the most clear picture we can have of what happened during the incident and the time surrounding it. That’s our goal,” she said.

A criminal investigation would be conducted by whatever agency the sexual assault is reported to, Aimee Herring, lead deputy prosecutor at the SVU of Saint Joseph County, said.

“That’s actually something that a lot of students are not aware of — that they have the option of reporting an incident to the Notre Dame Police Department or they have the opportunity of reporting it to the Saint Joseph County Police Department,” Herring said.

An incident that occurs on Notre Dame’s campus is also under the jurisdiction of Saint Joseph County, Herring said.

“If a student reports to the Saint Joseph County Police Department, it becomes a Special Victim Units case, where one of the [Saint Joseph County SVU] investigators would be assigned,” Herring said. “It’s the opposite if it went the other way — if a student chooses to report to Notre Dame directly, Notre Dame police would lead the investigation.”

Herring said if an incident is reported to the Saint Joseph SVU, they notify Notre Dame about the crime because of the University’s obligation to comply with the Clery Act. However, Herring said, the victim will be informed of this procedure and aware of the extent of information being shared.

“There are specific instances in which Notre Dame has to notify all students regarding an ongoing threat on campus,” Herring said. “If that were the situation, obviously Notre Dame doesn’t know about it until they’re told.”

Herring said an SVU prosecutor works with the investigative team — from any of the police agencies — throughout the entire process from the instance a sexual assault is reported.

“If it’s an emergency situation and a suspect has been identified, then the police agency is supposed to be contacting the deputy prosecutor that’s on call from the Special Victims Unit,” she said. “It reduces the amount of time that we then spend going over information that we already could have been privy to and allows us to be part of the investigation from the outset, providing advice or guidance when needed.”

This policy was implemented when Ken Cotter, Saint Joseph County Prosecutor, took office last year, Herring said.

“It’s been a long-standing policy that the lead attorneys at each department are pretty much on call anyways all the time,” she said. “It just became an official policy that we would rotate who would be on call and identify the specific people who have the appropriate knowledge and experience to be on call during specific time frames and to mandate the departments to make that contact.”

After the investigation stage, NDSP or Saint Joseph SVU investigators present the case to a prosecutor, Herring said.

“Once the case gets to our desk for review, we … aren’t just looking to see if the case is chargeable,” she said. “We have to look at the elements of the effects … to determine if the legislation has revealed, first, that a criminal act has occurred and second, that we can prove that case beyond a reasonable doubt in court to a jury.”

Herring said she thinks the media’s reports of an increase in incidents reflects the increase in the number of victims reporting sexual assaults, rather than the number of incidents occurring.

“I think it tells us victims know they have been violated, know what to do when they’ve been violated and what options they have,” she said. “They are seeking help if they need it. They are reporting if they want to.”

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About Katie Galioto

Katie, The Observer's former Managing Editor, is a senior majoring in political science, with minors in Business Economics and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She's an ex-Walsh Hall resident who now lives off campus and hails from Chanhassen, Minnesota. Follow her on Twitter @katiegalioto.

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