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Campus orientation: ‘Avoid getting raped’

| Friday, September 2, 2016

A woman who plays on my coed softball team retweeted a provocative photograph this week. It surfaced in the wake of the convergence of nationwide campus orientations with a high profile New Hampshire preparatory boarding school assault survivor who shed her anonymity. The tweet simply displayed the image of a college woman holding a handwritten sign that read, “I need feminism because my university teaches ‘How to avoid getting raped’ instead of ‘Don’t rape’ at freshman orientation.”

That meme poignantly articulates the way many institutions not only miss a global perspective of sexual assault, but prefer to safeguard their brand images with the public at any cost, sometimes while sacrificing the victims with impunity. On Tuesday, NBC’s “Today” interviewed Chessy Prout, a former St. Paul’s Prep School student, who as a freshman at age 15 accused a senior boy of sexually assaulting her. While nearly unconscious, she claimed the boy assaulted her as part of a longstanding “Senior Salute” cultural ritual prevalent among the student body where senior boys competitively tried to engage in sex with several underclass students. The Prout family, of whom the father and an older sister are alumni of St. Paul’s, filed a civil lawsuit against the school alleging that the school failed to protect children entrusted to its care and turned a blind eye to a “warped culture of sexual misconduct” on its campus.

In this case, the school’s words and actions are proof that it ultimately treasured its brand. A crisis management response seems to have overtaken nurturing and reconciliation. According to court documents, the school’s attorneys demanded that Prout’s identity be made public, arguing that its reputation has been attacked “from behind a cloak of anonymity.”

In response, St. Paul’s issued a statement to “Today” rife with word parsing and obfuscation, which included:

“As was the case when the survivor was a student here and subsequently, the School admires her courage and condemns unkind behavior toward her. We feel deeply for her and her family. We have always placed the safety and well-being of our students first and are confident that the environment and culture of the school have supported that. We categorically deny that there ever existed at the School a culture or tradition of sexual assault. However, there’s no denying the survivor’s experience caused us to look anew at the culture and environment. This fresh look has brought about positive changes at the School.”

Fresh looks and positive changes aside, the Prout case underscores the premise of that tweeted photograph. So long as judges have more sympathy for young men in their late teens or early 20s — the dumb, knuckle-dragger stage of life — who perpetuate assaults in search of a split second of pleasure, the quest for a victim’s justice is skewed. Whenever institutions defend their reputations while casting aside a victim’s reputation, society’s outlook remains skewed. When a boy’s perception of assault differs from a girl’s perception, our educational systems remain skewed.

Ironically, sometimes when confronted with such a personal, intrusively heinous accusation, the most brilliant of communities — academic settings, most notably — conduct themselves for the most part with a brainless air of self-preservation; certainly, the Catholic Church abjectly failed during its widespread parish-based child molestation cover-ups. Moreover, religious-affiliated academic institutions like Notre Dame cannot be excused either when cloaked with both academic brilliance and religious righteousness. In such cases, it does not matter what claim the institution coddles — the “premier” Catholic, or “traditional” Catholic or “liberal” Catholic label — it matters whether or not they only skittishly recoil in defense of self-image.

As a student at Notre Dame, I lived the transition from an all-male to a coeducational student population. It was an awkward time of social and religiously thought-based transitioning, especially for the University Health Services. However, University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh wisely, but sternly, guided that chaotic process. Hesburgh’s strength reminded me of the infamous World War II Army General George S. Patton, under whom my father served in Northern Africa, who drilled acceptable decorum in such stark terms that even the most irresponsible private feared crossing the line.

If General Patton led an academic institution today — it would be entertaining to envision him in a priest’s collar with the Golden Dome over his shoulder — his campus orientation program would emphasize the “not” doing of offenses rather than the “avoid” suffering offenses. As much as we believe this concept is mere common sense, it is not cemented throughout our society or across generations. We need only be reminded of the pending Roger Ailes harassment charges at Fox News, that Prout’s convicted assailant, Owen Labrie, only served half of his mere one-year sentence or Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s rape conviction only involved a light six-month confinement.

As we progress beyond orientation sessions through lifetime encounters, let the riding boot of General Patton be our symbol of right and wrong. No one should be taught how to avoid assault because prohibition is not emphasized. Our genders are not dividing lines for equality, civility or decency. Until everyone realizes that, victims will continue to be victimized within our judicial system. We all deserve better.

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him on Twitter: @GaryJCaruso or email: [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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