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Observer Editorial: It was timely

| Friday, September 16, 2016

On the morning of Sept. 8, Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) released its daily crime report online. In it, NDSP — as it is legally required to do — published that a rape had been reported. The rape, which allegedly occurred between the evening of Aug. 26 and the morning of Aug. 27 in Keough Hall, was reported to NDSP on Sept. 7, 11 days later.

However, students did not receive an email crime alert that a rape had been reported to the University.

Why does this matter? The Clery Act — the national legislation requiring universities to keep a daily crime log and release statistics yearly on sexual assault (among other crimes) — dictates that universities must also issue “timely warnings” to the community if certain types of crimes (including all legally defined sex offenses) are brought to their attention.

The law is named for Jeanne Clery, who in 1986 was raped and murdered by a fellow student in her dorm room at Lehigh University. University officials knew about an uptick of violent and non-violent crime on campus prior to her murder but did not inform students of the recent surge. Clery’s parents lobbied for the creation of a law requiring colleges and universities to inform their students about certain crimes when they occur on campuses.

The reasoning behind the “timely warning” requirement in the Clery Act is that by alerting the campus community about ongoing threats, students may act in a manner better suited to protecting themselves and those around them.

The Act, however, does not define “timely.” It allows universities to do so themselves (though Clery does require institutions to outline in their annual report how they determine what a “timely warning” is).

Most universities, while technically in compliance with the Clery Act, have an incredibly vague definition of timely. Notre Dame’s definition is no exception:

“Cases involving sexual assault are often reported long after the incident occurred, such that there is no ability to distribute a ‘timely’ warning notice to the community. For this reason, the reporting of sex offenses will be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on when and where the incident occurred, when it was reported and the amount of information known by the NDSP. Crime alerts may also be posted for other crime classifications, as deemed necessary.”

That brings us back to last Thursday. When we checked the daily crime log and saw that a rape had been reported, we asked a University spokesperson why students did not receive an email alert.

He said: “No timely warning was issued because the assault occurred two weeks before it was reported.”

First of all, 11 days is not two weeks, 14 days is two weeks.

Second, studies done on this subject suggest that rapists often do not just rape once. To suggest the threat is not ongoing or timely because 11 days have passed since it allegedly occurred is to ignore the reality of the situation.

Those same studies show that the first six weeks of college are the most dangerous for freshmen. That time period — the “red zone” — is when a college student is most likely to be sexually assaulted, more so than during the rest of their college career. If the threat of sexual assault is ever to be “timely,” that time is now.

The response of the University in this case was an abject failure.

It demonstrates no inclination towards ethics beyond the minimum legal requirements. It demonstrates an arbitrary definition of what “timely” means. And it demonstrates a callous attitude toward student safety by neglecting to inform students of crimes committed against members of this community, by members of this community.

While all of Notre Dame’s actions were technically legal, Notre Dame claims to be a university that holds itself to a higher standard. There are real benefits to alerting the community that crimes have been committed. It is our opinion that ethically, Notre Dame must take that into account when making a decision to send an alert, instead of adhering to the bare legal minimum.

The University must set a clear cutoff for a timely threat, whether that is 11 days, two weeks, three months, as long as the perpetrator is still enrolled — so long as a standard exists. Clear standards are a powerful tool for holding an institution accountable. As long as the definition for “timely” remains arbitrary, the University will continue to serve its own, and not its students’, best interests.

It is also worth noting that even if NDSP had sent an alert about this rape, students at Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross would not have received any type of notice; likewise, Notre Dame students do not receive crime alerts from either college. Given the amount of time students from the three schools spend together socially, this is also troubling.

The culture of doing the bare minimum to make students aware of sexual assault must end — ignoring a problem this significant has real consequences. It is unacceptable.

As an Editorial Board, we are mostly upperclassmen. We know that sexual assault happens at Notre Dame. We’ve received the emails; we’ve seen Loyal Daughters and Sons; we were here when “The Hunting Ground” debuted. We know.

Freshmen have been told that Notre Dame is special. That Notre Dame is the kind of place that cannot be described by words alone. That Notre Dame is different.

And, in many ways, it is. But Notre Dame struggles with the same problem that universities and colleges across the country struggle with: sexual assault.

Receiving your first crime alert email is a disappointing experience. It shatters the illusion that Notre Dame is the kind of place where bad things don’t happen — and for that reason, it is vitally important.

If receiving a crime alert could have caused just one freshman to step in when their maybe-too-drunk friend disappeared into somebody’s bedroom, or kept one student from leaving their friend alone at a party, or given one survivor the courage to come forward, then it would have been worth it.

Apparently, NDSP and the University administration thought otherwise.

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