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Protect survivors of sexual violence: ambiguous waiver policy needs clarity

| Tuesday, October 10, 2017

“We understand the decision to move off campus is motivated by a number of good reasons.” In a move that sparked immediate debate on Sept. 13, Father Jenkins announced changes to the housing requirement via an email sent at midnight. “[B]eginning with the matriculating class of 2018, the University will require first-year students, sophomores, and juniors to live on campus for six semesters,” the email stated. Though unreferenced in the email, Father Jenkins and Ms. Erin Hoffman Harding mentioned the formation of a waiver system from the requirement in a town hall meeting scheduled only twenty hours later.

Many before me have raised concerns about the effect of this requirement on students of color, LGBTQ students, students of low socioeconomic status and students with disabilities, among others. A robust and well-planned waiver system could mitigate students’ justified fears about this change. However, the University implemented this policy without a fully formulated plan to protect students disproportionately harmed by this new requirement. I fear this housing policy and its ill-conceived waiver system will cause undue harm to survivors of sexual violence.

My criticism must begin with the remarkable dearth of information regarding the procedure of the proposed waiver system. In an email responding to my questions concerning the waiver system, associate vice president for residential life Heather Rakoczy Russell stated, “We are still in the throes of designing the waiver process, so it would be premature for me to share specifics that are currently still undecided.” While I understand that policies take time to formulate, I object to the establishment of such a system without adequate preparation. Any policy that will affect thousands of students must be designed to address every likely situation, and the circumstances I present below clearly follow from present conditions, indicating that they will not be rare.

Operated through residential life, the waiver system could require students to “out” themselves as survivors of sexual violence in order to receive permission to move off campus before the requirement is met. Most administrators are mandatory reporters, which means that if students share any account of sexual violence committed against them or someone else, the mandatory reporter must file a report to the Title IX office. Even if the student does not desire an investigation, the Title IX office can exercise discretion as to whether or not to investigate. Essentially, then, a Title IX investigation could be inadvertently triggered by simply asking to move off campus.

However, why would a student resist participation in a Title IX investigation if his or her claim of sexual violence is true? Put simply, Title IX investigations are harrowing for complainants and respondents alike. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently lifted the time limit of 60 days on Title IX cases, essentially permitting them to drag on indefinitely. Title IX investigations can also incite undesired publicity, inflict a stigma of reporting and put a survivor at risk for retaliation. No Contact Orders, standard fixtures of Title IX proceedings preventing contact between the complainant and the respondent, do not prevent “unintentional contact,” such as chance run-ins in the gyms, dining halls, library, LaFortune, football games or off-campus parties, which can affect survivors’ mental health for days, if not longer. Research shows disproportionate levels of PTSD (34 percent of survivors, 9 percent of non-survivors) and depression (33 percent of survivors, 11 percent of non-survivors) among survivors of sexual violence. All of these factors suggest reason for survivors to (a) resist participation in a Title IX investigation, and (b) choose to move off-campus.

Furthermore, I am frustrated that Notre Dame announced these housing changes without addressing the underlying issues that already plague residential life. Regarding student feedback, Father Jenkins wrote, “[S]ome were put off by a lack of consistency in procedures and rules across residence halls.” This casual reference indicates an administrative awareness of the widely known power dynamics between male and female residence halls, specifically due to an unequal enforcement of rules regarding alcohol and “social gatherings.” Sexual violence is often predicated on power, not simply sexual desire. In situations where there exists “alcohol-soaked parties in all-male residences with no official administrative oversight … a high-level of gender inequality in social life, [and] a pervasive attitude [of] male sexual entitlement,” sexual violence is more likely to occur. The University should have addressed these barriers to community before imposing a haphazard blanket “solution.”

The University of Notre Dame aspires in its mission statement to form “an authentic human community.” Yet, in the recent town hall meeting, Father Jenkins asserted that “Notre Dame is not for everyone.” The new housing requirements suggest the administration is willing to listen to student feedback but not act upon it. Though the announcement email states that “students overwhelmingly value the community formed in their halls,” the University clearly prioritizes the experience of the majority over the daily realities of underrepresented and unacknowledged students. I urge the administration to heed undergraduate input and finalize its waiver system with these students, including survivors of sexual violence, in mind before any admitted student must commit to attendance next year. Notre Dame may not “be for everyone,” but it should be.

Isabel Rooper is a sophomore studying political science. She is interested in criminal justice, Title IX and the South Bend River Lights. Please feel free to reach her over email at [email protected].

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

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