Ricketts-Ruelas administration seeks to improve sexual assault response on campus
Catherine Owers | Friday, December 11, 2015
When students received two emails from Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) reporting three incidents of sexual violence on campus in the first two weeks of the fall semester, the issue of sexual assault in the Notre Dame community was once again highlighted.
With the continuation of the “It’s On Us” campaign and participation in the launch of the GreeNDot violence prevention program, student government has prioritized raising awareness and sparking dialogue about sexual violence on campus. On Oct. 15, student body president Bryan Ricketts and vice president Nidia Ruelas presented a report to the Board of Trustees on the current state of sexual violence at Notre Dame and how the University can further work to solve the issue.
Ricketts said he identifies student government’s response to sexual assault as one of the strengths of his and Ruelas’ administration.
“‘It’s On Us’ and the sexual violence Board report, I would definitely put up there at the top as something that we’ve worked very hard on, as something that we care a lot about as something that the students care a lot about,” he said.
The Board of Trustees report focused on four major topics: campus conversation surrounding sexual violence, the trajectory of change on the issue at Notre Dame, alcohol culture’s role in sexual violence and a process overview, supplemented by students’ experiences. It concluded with a series of recommendations to Trustees on how to curb sexual violence on campus, as well as how to improve the process of reporting and navigating the Title IX process.
Ruelas said continuing conversations on sexual assault are critical, even when students are not receiving email notifications of sexual violence on campus.
“That’s something we’ve thought about, and I think a whole lot of it has been being intentional about talking about it, not being scared of having these conversations, as student leaders,” she said.“It goes back to utilizing our networks and influence as student leaders, working with other student leaders too, to make sure they feel comfortable talking about difficult topics like sexual assault, sexual violence on campus.”
Small efforts can have a significant impact on creating a campus culture more open to conversations about sexual violence, Ruelas said.
“I know I’m very intentional about mentioning it at hall council. Something as simple as having an announcement at Mass, now it’s a permanent petition in Mass — it’s a constant reminder that this plagues our community. And it’s something we should all be conscious about, as a community, in the sense that as active bystanders, whether you got an email a week ago or two years ago, [you should be concerned],” she said.
Ricketts said student government’s goal is to put as many structures in place as possible to foster natural student engagement on this salient issue.
“Whether it’s Men Against Sexual Violence, or FIRE Starters or Notre Dame student groups who have a space to come forward when we’re doing “It’s On Us,” when it comes to GreeNDot and we’re saying we’re going to make these videos … ,” he said, “We try to look at it from a structural perspective, and say, ‘What do we have? What are the resources to change these structures that will allow people to come forward?’
“The prayer services, for example — we evaluated our communications policy on that, which have improved attendance for the past year. We definitely take a structural look at how we can foster that natural feeling that’s out there, that this is an issue, and how we can help people come forward.”
Student government has tried to played a large role in creating student body engagement on the issue, the director of the department of gender issues, junior Danny Funaro, said in an interview last month.
Funaro said the department of gender issues has participated in the GreeNDot launch and worked on promoting the “It’s On Us” campaign, the University’s iteration of the national movement commissioned by the White House to end sexual violence on college campuses.
“‘It’s On Us’ tries to get people to take ownership of the issue, so the main thing that goes with that is the ‘It’s On Us’ pledge,” he said. “Pledge cards were last year’s version of this pledge — this year we’ve put more of a focus on the itsonus.nd.edu pledge.”
More than 200 students have signed the pledge this year, Funaro said. The department hopes to have more than 400 students sign by the end of the semester.
“The main way we’ve done that is by going door-to-door in different dorms,” he said. “You can actually get good conversations with people … [and] get people that really want to get involved.”
Funaro said he has noticed there is sometimes more difficulty getting men involved in programming and campaigns to end sexual violence.
“To get the general male population involved is a little bit harder, but I think we’ve made inroads in that, versus last year, when the ‘It’s On Us’ pledge was signed mostly by women,” he said. “This year there’s a much better balance.”
Ruelas said that student government has made it a priority to demonstrate they are serious about ending sexual assault on Notre Dame’s campus, primarily through the presentation to the Board of Trustees and participating in the launch of GreeNDot. Ricketts said the letters written by University president Fr. John Jenkins and vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffmann-Harding last spring regarding the University’s intolerance for sexual assault have contributed to a positive culture of change.
“Their public commitments are a contrast to other universities, where you just don’t see that, it’s just the students. I think we have a good working relationship with a lot of individuals, and there are culture change issues that need to be addressed here, there are policy issues that need to be addressed here. The fact that we’re able to have that conversation and not find ourselves shut down, I think, says a lot,” Ricketts said.