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Observer Editorial: Renew the commitment

| Friday, April 5, 2019

This week marks the beginning of Sexual Assault Awareness Month — a time to recognize those affected by sexual assault and actively work toward preventing it. On April 25, the tri-campus community will come together in support of this mission for “Take Back The Night,” an annual event meant to increase awareness and support for survivors of sexual assault. The newly elected Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s student government administrations have both voiced plans to increase awareness on the issue. But where the dedication and focus of students on this issue succeeds, the administrations continue to fail.

Both Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s have questionable records when it comes to transparency involving sexual assault. Former College President Carol Ann Mooney’s complicity in masking the problem in the late 2000s and early 2010s has significantly marred her legacy. The administrations’ failures to address sexual violence have been criticized as contributing to the death of Saint Mary’s first year Lizzy Seeberg in 2010. Ten days after Seeberg reported an assault committed by a Notre Dame football player, she was found dead from a prescription medication overdose. Though Seeberg reported the attack to campus police, the alleged perpetrator was not interviewed until five days after Seeberg’s death. That same year, the College established a Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) led by former director Connie Adams.

As the hub for sexual assault prevention and resources at the College, BAVO originally offered means for students to share their stories confidentially. Adams led the office for over eight years before an email to the community announced her departure on Jan. 24, 2018. The email asserted the College would be “searching for a leader … in the spring semester.” More than a year later, however, the job remains unfilled. The position was listed on one job search website as recently as March 8, 2019.

Adams’ departure created a gaping hole for BAVO and Saint Mary’s. Survivor support programs and awareness events which were held last year have not taken place since the position has been vacant. Adams typically used Welcome Weekend as an opportunity to inform first-year students about the threat of sexual assault and to provide information on the purposes of BAVO. This year, the presentation was absent from orientation. Without Adams to supplement the ‘Sex Signals’ skit, first-year students were left dangerously uninformed on methods to report an assault and resources available to survivors.

Adams’ position has been partially filled by Emerald Blankenship, the current director of Regina Hall. Though Blankenship is the interim BAVO coordinator, her status as a hall director makes her a mandatory reporter. Thus, she cannot remain a confidential resource as she is required to file a Title IX complaint when students come to her with allegations of sexual assault. For students who are assaulted but are not ready to take formal action, a confidant can be a valuable resource in the healing process. While Blankenship’s willingness to step up is admirable, as a mandatory reporter, she cannot fill the role of a confidential resource.

With Blankenship serving as both the interim coordinator and a mandatory reporter, the two confidential resources available at Saint Mary’s are Campus Ministry and Health and Counseling. Health and Counseling appointments are often booked days in advance, and the religious route through Campus Ministry cannot be expected to meet the standard that professional counseling offers and may not be a preferred choice for some members of the community.

Saint Mary’s must pursue a renewed commitment to diverse, accessible and simple means for students to report sexual assault. A step in the right direction would be filling the position of BAVO coordinator with an experienced and confidential resource, thereby reinstating the same level of leadership and involvement seen in previous years.

Saint Mary’s has taken steps towards finding a new BAVO coordinator, but the fact that the position remains unfilled over a year after the announcement of Adams’ departure is unacceptable. It is every college and university’s responsibility to ensure the safety and comfort of its students. An issue as prevalent as sexual assault on college campuses should take precedence at a women’s institution which prides itself on its supportive community.

The absence of a permanent BAVO coordinator only perpetuates a culture of silence regarding sexual assault and violence on campus. Leaving the position vacant for so long reflects poorly on the College’s priorities. Though filling this position would not resolve all of the tri-campus communities’ pertinent issues regarding sexual assault on campus, it would demonstrate a commitment to students and their safety. Confronting sexual assault on college campuses is a complex issue, but the only way to make concrete progress toward addressing this issue is to educate students about the problem by providing them with reliable and trustworthy resources surrounding the issue.

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