Dear Fr. Jenkins
Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Under the auspice of Our Lady, the members of the Notre Dame family are called to live in solidarity with those on the margins and ensure a safe and inclusive community, free from physical, emotional and psychological harm for all. For too long, sexual violence has injured the students, faculty, staff and alumni in our Notre Dame family. We call upon the University to take a strong stand against sexual violence in light of recent changes to the Department of Education’s guidelines and the University’s housing policy. We ask that our University publicly state its intent to address the following four items: one, commit to use the preponderance of the evidence standard in cases of sexual misconduct, regardless of changing federal guidelines; two, uphold a 60-day timeline of addressing Title IX cases; three, clarify new alternative resolutions policy and disallow mediation in cases of sexual misconduct, in accordance with previous federal guidelines; and four, create and publicize waivers from the six-semester housing requirement for survivors of sexual misconduct, violence or any other form of discrimination.
Firstly, we call upon the University of Notre Dame to commit to upholding the preponderance of evidence standard in cases of sexual violence. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released guidance on Sept. 22 permitting universities to employ a clear and convincing standard of evidence in Title IX cases. Sexual violence cases are among the most difficult to “prove,” and have one of the lowest false reporting rates of all crimes. Raising this standard creates an unreasonable burden of proof on the complainant, the survivor-victim. Additionally, because Title IX cases are civil rather than criminal cases, Title IX proceedings should use the same standard of evidence as do civil cases: preponderance. In committing to maintaining the preponderance of evidence standard, Notre Dame would stand with survivors and express its dedication to the value of justice.
Secondly, we urge the University of Notre Dame to uphold the previous administration’s guidance of concluding Title IX investigations within 60 days of when they are opened. Though we truly believe our University will continue to resolve cases in a timely manner, a public statement asserting our commitment to this timeline holds the University of Notre Dame accountable, and protects the mental health of both complainants and respondents by limiting how long the pain and stigma of a Title IX investigation may continue.
Thirdly, Secretary DeVos lifted the ban on mediation in cases of sexual violence, allowing universities to facilitate “informal resolutions” between survivors and perpetrators. This process, previously illegal under both the Bush and Obama administrations, is an unsuitable and destructive way to resolve cases of sexual violence and sexual assault. We recognize and assert the value of survivors controlling their reporting processes. Reporting can be draining and stigmatizing; survivors should have the ability to get help and support without reporting through Title IX. However, mediation was illegal until September of this year for a reason. Rhodes Scholar and 2017 Notre Dame graduate Grace Watkins explains some of the dangers of mediation, writing that schools may be inclined to describe sexual violence as a mere “dispute between students” and encourage survivors to “work it out” with their rapists. Moreover, survivors may be “pressured to opt for mediation over a formal investigation” because “mediation is easier” for schools and “requires far less manpower and time” than “the standard Title IX investigation process.”
Survivors should not be pressured into forgiveness, and mediation is not restorative justice. There exists no shared moral responsibility between victim and perpetrator. Contrary to this understanding, Heather Ryan — recently internally transferred deputy Title IX coordinator — stated that the new alternative resolutions process was implemented to be more “restorative” than the original administrative resolutions process. This comment reflects an administrative belief that invoking disciplinary outcomes on perpetrators is unnecessary or overly dramatic. We could not disagree more strongly. For these reasons, we ask the University to return to its original, appropriate stance that mediation be disallowed in all cases of sexual violence or assault.
Finally, we ask the University to protect survivors of sexual assault and violence in light of the recently announced requirement that students live on campus for six semesters. Forcing survivors of sexual assault to remain on campus after they have been assaulted is insensitive, unethical and damaging. Thirty-four percent of college student survivors have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a direct result of their assault. This rate is three times higher than the average rate of PTSD amongst college students in the U.S. Forcing survivors to stay on campus for the sake of fulfilling the new requirement can further aggravate the risks to students’ mental health. We ask that the University quickly implement a waiver system which allows survivors of sexual assault, violence and other forms of discrimination to opt out of the requirement. This waiver should not demand that students share the story of why they wish to leave as this unfairly burdens the survivor.
Sexual violence is not a partisan issue. Our University would stray from its Christian values by neglecting one of the most marginalized groups on our campus. By one, upholding use of the preponderance of evidence standard in cases of sexual misconduct; two, employing a 60-day case timeline; three, clarifying the new alternative resolutions policy and disallowing mediation in cases of sexual misconduct; and four, creating simple waivers for survivors of sexual violence and other forms of discrimination and harassment to move off-campus, our beloved University will recommit itself to protecting every member of the Notre Dame family. In order to support this effort to hold Notre Dame accountable, please visit our website at http://stand4ix.weebly.com/ and consider signing our open letter to Fr. Jenkins. As he stated in his homily marking the 175th anniversary of this incredible place, “either we are all Notre Dame, or none of us are.” Please ensure that we are all truly Notre Dame by protecting every vulnerable member of our community and calling upon Notre Dame to do better.
Isabel R. Rooper
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.