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Observer Editorial: Continuing the conversation

| Friday, September 4, 2020

Editor’s Note: This editorial includes mentions of sexual assault and suicide. A list of sexual assault reporting options and on-campus resources can be found on the Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross websites.

In 2010, Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old Saint Mary’s first year, reported that she had been sexually assaulted by former Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo on Aug. 31. After filing a complaint with campus police, Seeberg received a string of threatening text messages from one of Shembo’s friends, warning her against “messing with Notre Dame football.”

She took her own life 10 days later.

In the months that followed, Seeberg’s allegations and death sparked a new dialogue surrounding sexual assault and harassment on college campuses.

Her story shows the risks often associated with reporting and brings to light the stigma that is still felt so deeply in our community.

Last week, the Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) showcased a series of anonymous stories in #WhyIDidntReport, an exhibit featuring the experiences of survivors who did not report instances of sexual violence and harassment. The exhibit showcased the stories of both current students and alumnae. The hashtag was originally created in 2018 following the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers. Other survivors rallied around Ford in support, sharing their own stories under the hashtag on social media.

At Saint Mary’s, some survivors said they did not report out of feelings of shame, guilt and fear as well as worry they would upset their friends and family. Others took weeks or years to process that what happened to them was in fact assault. By then, they decided too much time had passed since the encounter. Some said they did not want to damage the future of the perpetrator.

It is imperative that we continue the conversation surrounding sexual assault to empower survivors and encourage anyone who experiences any form of harassment to report and seek support.

On the 10-year anniversary of Seeberg’s report, and in light of the ever-changing circumstances posed by the pandemic, we’d like to take stock of the state of Title IX as well as the resources available to students within the tri-campus.

On May 6, in an announcement following nearly three years of deliberation, the Department of Education released new Title IX  regulations on sexual misconduct, eliciting controversy and confusion. The new Title IX regulations define sexual assault as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” This definition is far narrower than that used by Obama’s administration, which considered harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”

In addition, schools were told to use the preponderance of evidence standard under Obama’s guidelines, which finds alleged perpetrators responsible if there is a 50.1% likelihood that an assault occurred.

The new rules carry the full force of law, implementing due process in a way that the previous Title IX rules did not. Universities are now provided a legal framework with which to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct. According to the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos, this is to ensure “that every person’s claim of sexual misconduct is taken seriously while ensuring the fair treatment of every person accused of such misconduct.”

This means schools must host live disciplinary hearings in cases of sexual misconduct and allow cross-examination of witnesses, forcing the person who filed a report to face the alleged perpetrator. Additionally, as Catholic institutions, we qualify to file for a religious exemption which allows for cases to not be pursued on the basis of religion.

Dr. James Gillespie, a professor and Title IX coordinator at Saint Mary’s, said Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross — as well as other schools across the U.S. — have responded to these notable changes and updated their Title IX documents accordingly.

“While there have been some changes, the core of Title IX remains fully in place and serves as a powerful protective tool to address sexual harassment, sexual assault … or other forms of sexual misconduct committed by or against students, staff or faculty on the Saint Mary’s campus,” Gillespie said in an e-mail to The Observer. “We continue to have a robust array of confidential resources for victims, including counseling, medical and pastoral support systems.”

The College has installed several Title IX deputies and investigators and maintains its usual host of resources, including mental and physical health services.

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Belles Against Violence Office, a longstanding resource at Saint Mary’s. BAVO specifically maintained momentum in adapting its services to the current campus environment and has come a long way since its start in 2010. Despite the changes made to Title IX, both Gillespie and Liz Coulston, director of BAVO, encourage students to report any instance of sexual misconduct.

BAVO offers a number of services; however, there is still a substantial gap in resources and information for students who are victims of power-based violence while abroad. As an institution that boasts its study abroad programs, the College must provide a more thorough resource for these students so they do not become the next story in a Why I Didn’t Report exhibit.

Notre Dame’s Title IX office provides assistance through a team of experts trained to support survivors, offering a variety of options as to how students, faculty and staff can move forward with reporting assault or abuse. In addition, the University Counseling Center and University Health Services both offer confidential mental and physical health services. We encourage the University to continue to offer these resources, despite the new changes to Title IX under Education Secretary DeVos and to strive to protect and advocate for all members of the tri-campus community.

In addition, Holy Cross has installed a Title IX office with a Title IX Coordinator who is trained to support victims of assault, as well as health and counseling services and access to services in the wider South Bend community.

The conversation surrounding sexual assault on college campuses and beyond is one that deserves our attention and collective energy, especially now, as schools across the country adapt to the new Title IX rules. The world continues to change at an accelerated pace due to this pandemic, but the experience of survivors is the same.

The passing of Lizzy Seeberg started this dialogue within the tri-campus 10 years ago. Let’s honor her memory by continuing to advocate for survivors and amplify their voices.

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