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Tri-campus community comes together to speak out against sexual assault

| Thursday, April 25, 2019

Students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross will gather to pray, march and speak out in support of victims of sexual assault as a part of the 14th annual Take Back the Night on Thursday. The event, which was sponsored by the Gender Relations Center (GRC) with support from student government, is organized by students and faculty from across the tri-campus community.

The event is scheduled to begin at Holy Cross College at 6 p.m., and there will also be a kick-off at Saint Mary’s at 6:30 p.m. followed by a walkover from Lake Marion to Dahnke Ballroom at Notre Dame for an event titled “Speak Out.” Later, students will march around the Notre Dame campus to raise awareness about sexual assault in the community, followed by a vigil at the Grotto.

This year, the GRC is partnering with the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being (McWell) for an opportunity to reflect, relax and refocus through crafts following the event.

Fifth-year student Pierce Witmer, one of the Notre Dame student representatives for the Take Back the Night Committee, said the event focuses not just on raising awareness about sexual assault but also on supporting sexual assault survivors.

“The most important part of the event is to support survivors and to support the people who have been affected by sexual assault,” Witmer said. “Raising awareness about the issue is a very big, positive part of it, but that’s something that we do with a lot of our events that are geared towards sexual assault awareness at the GRC. This event specifically is unique in the way that it tries to make sure that survivors feel that they are not alone.”

Christine Caron Gebhardt, director of the GRC, said sexual assault is a much more prevalent problem on campus than many students realize.

“We are vastly underreported. We know that … there are barriers to why students report, and some of it is they are afraid of the reactions of peers or administrators or retaliation,” Caron Gebhardt said. “ … Sexual assault is a crime of power and the greatest power around violence is isolation. So, if the system or people or the perpetrator isolates the victim, then they’re never held accountable. This is an opportunity for our survivors and victims to know that it is not okay and that we have to break the silence.”

Student body president junior Elizabeth Boyle cited statistics from the University’s 2018 Sexual Conduct and Campus Climate Questionnaire Report, which stated 27% of female students and 7% of male students indicated they had experienced some sort of unwanted sexual contact while a student at Notre Dame.

“It’s a big problem,” Boyle said. “ … More and more students are realizing that it is a problem here and they are reacting to it, which is really positive to see.”

Caron Gebhardt said Take Back the Night is also a chance to move beyond just hearing the statistics and instead start to see how individuals are affected by sexual assault and take steps to support them.

“If you’re skeptical about the statistics — which I get, I would not want anybody not to be a critical thinker, I think it’s important about what we do here at Notre Dame — but when you hear a person’s narrative or when you hear a person’s story, you can’t deny the impact that has happened in that person’s life,” Caron Gebhardt said. “ … It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the people.”

In previous years, one of the most popular events of the evening was “Speak Out,” which gives survivors of sexual assault a chance to share their experiences, Witmer said.

“For many people that come to the event, this is the first time that they’ve opened up about their experiences,” he said. “Creating an environment that appropriately attributes weight and respect to those speakers is something that we want to try to protect. … It’s a healing time for people that have gone through something traumatic or who have had people in their lives affected by such a traumatic experience as well.”

John Johnstin, assistant director for outreach at the GRC, said not all of the stories are necessarily about sexual assault, but sometimes students speak instead about the trauma that has been present in their life or the life of others as a result of such experiences. Witmer said this is also welcomed at the event, as not everyone feels comfortable to talk about it directly.

“We want to make sure folks are able to find their voice and be able to share their story in a place and location that is supportive and caring and wants to make sure that they know that they are believed,” he said. “ … If we can simply have somebody feel comfortable coming forward and sharing their story and knowing that they are going to be believed, I think that we are making a huge change within our community.”

Boyle, who also attended the event her freshman year, said “Speak Out” was a profound experience for her.

“You’re sitting down, and you might not know it, but the person sitting next to you will jump right up and share their story. I think a really important tool is being able to share stories with each other and then grow and walk alongside one another,” Boyle said. “So, I really hope that students will learn from the speak out that sexual violence happens here in many different ways and it doesn’t discriminate on any sort of identity.”

Caron Gebhardt said she encourages unsure students to attend Take Back the Night, get involved and support survivors to contribute to the well-being of the tri-campus community.

“Even if you’re not sure, just come, because I think you will be compelled by the men and women who have been harmed and the burdens and the scars and the wounds that they carry, but also by the hope and the courage and the resilience that they manifest,” Caron Gebhardt said. “It both shows us the darkest aspect of who we are as a community but also offers the greatest hope for us as a community.”

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