Plans to alter COVID tests, thousands of dollars of property damage, a disputed partying reputation: Officials, students discuss ‘troubling culture’ in Zahm
Editor’s note: This story includes strong language, as well as mentions of sexual assault. 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.
The email was stark and unsparing.
A junior resident of Zahm House, a dorm that University officials effectively decided to close last month, was responding to an apparent challenge to a drinking game from a first-year resident.
“I’ll teach you how to f*cking finish after I’m standing over your puking body as you cry about how you don’t belong in this dorm,” the junior’s email read. “… I’m about to make you my little b*tch after 10 margs. I’m about to give you months of content for your therapist after you need to resolve these daddy issues … I’ll f*ck you until you love me you f*cking m*ricon.”
When the University announced plans to essentially dissolve Zahm, officials explained the decision by offering vague references to concerns regarding the dorm’s “troubling culture” — including vandalism over the years, demonstrated disrespect for University officials and a disregard for University COVID-19 testing protocols.
However, after more than a dozen interviews conducted by The Observer over the past month, a clearer picture of the life and culture inside Zahm House has emerged:
At one point during the fall semester, the dorm had twice as many COVID-19 cases as any other residence hall — and several students hatched a plan to alter their COVID test results by cleaning their nostrils out with rubbing alcohol, in an attempt to be able attend a football game.
The cost of repairing vandalism-related damages in and beyond Zahm has been nearly 10 times higher than the average of other dorms in the last few years.
And a series of mass emails distributed among Zahm residents in recent years portrays a culture of partying and drinking, and includes coarse and deeply misogynistic references to women, such as jokes about gang rape and sexual assault.
Twice as many COVID-19 cases, required testing and plans to alter results
On Sept. 10, 2020, vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding sent an email to Zahm residents saying the dorm had twice the amount of coronavirus infections than any other residence halls on campus.
Zahm rector Fr. Bill Dailey said Zahm residents have often attributed the rates of COVID-19 cases within the residence hall to what he had described as a tight-knit community: “They have a very tight sense of knowing one another and [they] make that a priority.”
Fr. Dailey previously served as rector in Stanford Hall from 2013 to 2016. In 2016, he was asked to found the Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith and Reason at St. John Henry Newman’s University Church in Dublin, Ireland.
Last year, he asked to return to campus ahead of schedule and to lead a residence hall, he told The Observer in an email. And so he was assigned as the Zahm rector beginning in the fall of 2020 — according to associate vice president for residential life Heather Rakoczy Russell, he is the seventh the dorm has had in nine years.
“I very much appreciate the way the men here support each other, but I do not agree with them that their friendships are qualitatively different from those in other dorms such that they were entitled to indulge in behaviors they knew to be wrong,” Dailey added in the email. “… That’s one example that points to underlying culture.”
Junior and resident assistant Joe Day also said the high rate of coronavirus infections was probably a result of the tight community the Zahm residents have.
Per the Sept. 10 announcement, Zahm residents eligible for testing — those in quarantine and who had tested positive were exempt — were given instructions to report for a surveillance test by the end of the day Sept. 11, a Friday.
If a student did not get tested, they would not be able to attend the Sept. 12 game between the Irish football team and the Duke Blue Devils, the email said. Students who did not complete testing could also be referred to the University’s conduct process.
Though many Zahm House members were planning to comply and report for surveillance testing, some had planned to alter their test results, according to Rakoczy Russell.
“When called for surveillance testing, some Zahm residents planned together to modify the test through a hall-wide student GroupMe, which became known when a concerned Zahm resident passed along a warning to the testing center,” she told The Observer.
Some residents, Rakoczy Russell said, actually tried to follow through with these plans, but the testing center staff had been made aware of possible issues.
“When Zahm men appeared for surveillance testing, deliberate disregard was most apparent when some of them tried to alter results by cleaning their nostrils with rubbing alcohol just prior to the test and actually failing to swab their nostrils,” she added. “Their behavior required nurses at the testing center to adjust testing procedures to ensure the accuracy of the tests.”
“I highly doubt that there was a coordinated effort to change the type of the results of the test,” junior Zahm resident Daniel Castaneda told The Observer.
Joe Day said the incident didn’t involve any more than two or three residents.
Thousands of dollars in annual vandalism costs, within and beyond Zahm
Residence halls typically average $500 in vandalism-associated repairs during academic years, with occasional outliers reaching around $1,000, Rakoczy Russell said. In the fall 2020 semester alone, vandalism-associated repairs in Zahm cost $4,785, she said, which “was consistent with prior patterns.”
For instance, during the 2018-2019 academic year, costs related to vandalism reached $6,785, she said. And by the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, Zahm House’s property damage due to vandalism-associated repairs totaled $14,738.
An example of routine vandalism, according to Rakoczy Russell, was destroyed or “paneled” doors — a “near-weekly occurrence” in the hall. Dailey said this year has seen an “endless parade” of ceiling tiles, door panels, window screens and other items damaged in the dorm, with no one to take responsibility for any of it.
When the responsible students cannot be identified, they cannot be made to pay for the repairs as restitution, so the cost of these is charged to the hall account, Rakoczy Russell said.
Day explained the residence dorm rooms have wooden doors with eight wooden panels in them, and residents will commonly punch out panels in someone else’s door if they “have beef with somebody” or as a joke.
Castaneda said Zahm residents were aware of the problem of vandalism well before the decision to close the dorm.
“Everyone or most people in Zahm recognize that it is something that we can fix,” he said. “Some traditions, maybe, deserve to take a step back … it’s not great that vandalism is occurring and the Zahm community is aware of that.”
Before the decision to close the dorm, Fr. Dailey told Zahm residents this semester “rather explicitly” that the vandalism in Zahm needed to stop, Castaneda said.
“It stopped this semester, vandalism has been near zero,” Castaneda said. “I think that, yes, [vandalism] might be weird, and I don’t really have an explanation for why it occurs. But, like I said, Zahm is definitely trying to improve itself.”
In addition to the vandalism that occurs in the building, the aforementioned email in which the Division of Student Affairs announced plans to close Zahm mentioned “significant vandalism over many years within and beyond the building (including the University’s Sculpture Park this year).”
“The Notre Dame Sculpture Park was also specifically mentioned in the letter to Zahm residents because it marked a move from private behavior within … the walls of Zahm to public behavior that impacted the University community,” Rakoczy Russell said.
She also confirmed this particular incident occurred at the Charles B. Hayes Family Sculpture Park last semester. The University declined further commenting on or giving more specific details regarding the vandalism incident.
The Snite Museum’s director, Joseph Becherer, confirmed through Gina Costa, marketing and public relations program manager, that an incident involving Notre Dame students in which a tree in the sculpture park was uprooted did, in fact, occur last semester. The park is part of the Snite Museum. The situation was handled by the Notre Dame Police Department (NDPD), according to Becherer.
Day confirmed the incident involved residents uprooting a tree from the sculpture park with the intention to plant it in the middle of North Quad as a joke. Castaneda said, to his understanding, the residents involved with the incident were Zahm resident assistants at the time.
Castaneda said he was surprised when the University cited this incident in the decision to close the dorm.
“I don’t understand why an entire dorm would be punished for the actions of individuals that have already been punished for their actions,” he said.
A disputed culture: partying, drinking, sexual assault
In an earlier interview with The Observer, junior and former Zahm resident J. J. Dyke had reflected on a dorm culture he said “revolves almost exclusively around beer and women.”
“There aren’t a lot of social opportunities that aren’t related to alcohol and the larger Zahm culture,” he said. “… So, rather than being alone, people tend to accept the culture at some point.”
According to Zahm residents interviewed by the South Bend Tribune, “Parties and drinking are common at Zahm, but no more so than in other dorms. They also say that, despite some students’ perceptions, there is no data to suggest sexual assaults happen any more frequently in Zahm than any other dorm.”
Data about sexual assault cases on Notre Dame’s campus is not publicly available. Since NDPD operates as a private branch of the University and not as a public agency, the department is not required by Indiana law to identify specific dorms or locations where reported incidents have taken place.
NDPD daily police logs only identify the locations of sexual assault reports vaguely, such as “south side women’s residence hall” or “east side campus residence.” University spokesperson Dennis Brown said in an email Notre Dame “will remain consistent with our past practice regarding location.”
The most updated information about campus-wide sexual assault reports comes from the 2020 campus climate survey, where 4% of female respondents and 1% of male respondents indicated they had experienced non-consensual sexual intercourse as a student, and 16% of female students and 4% of male students said they had personally experienced other forms of non-consensual sexual contact while enrolled at Notre Dame.
Given NDPD’s current policy regarding the availability of records to the public, the exact number of reported sexual assault cases in any given Notre Dame residence hall is thus impossible to determine.
Liz Coulston, Saint Mary’s Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) coordinator, and Nicole Hundt, Saint Mary’s Title IX Coordinator, said in an email they could only confirm “incidents in Zahm” have been reported by Belles to their respective offices.
“I cannot comment on whether these incidents occur more often in Zahm than other residence halls,” Coulston said.
Castaneda said residents in Zahm are aware of the implied connections between sexual assault and the hall — something he said residents actively try to change.
Joseph Calce served as a resident assistant in Zahm during the 2019-2020 academic year. In an email correspondence with The Observer, he said Zahm residents took it upon themselves to increase training in the GreeNDot violence prevention program within the dorm, in addition to it being mandatory to join a five-man room in Zahm.
“From there, I believe that the sophomores just encouraged the younger guys to participate in GreeNDot training, and it has carried on like that,” Calce said.
In her email to The Observer, Rakoczy Russell wrote the University did not endorse drinking or partying in any residence hall, but that this “was neither the source of the concern nor the reason for the Zahm decision.”
“Also, the decision about Zahm and the challenge of sexual assault on campus are separate matters,” Rakoczy Russell added. “Sexual violence is a concern on college campuses across the nation, including in any Notre Dame residence halls and at off-campus locations.”
In regards to the Notre Dame dorm party culture, Saint Mary’s BAVO coordinator Liz Coulston wrote to The Observer that, “In general, college and university party cultures have been found to perpetuate rape culture and increase incidents of sexual violence. Alcohol and partying are ingrained in the traditions of the college experience and are often utilized as a catalyst for fun.”
Castaneda said the University and hall staff have criticized Zahm for being a “cliquey” dorm with a culture of hierarchy between the upperclassmen and first-years and power dynamics between “popular” residents and others.
But he rejected this claim, saying, “I remember parties my freshman and sophomore year, and everyone in the dorm [was] invited.”
He also stressed that parties that occurred in years past were always voluntary.
“We don’t pride ourselves in drinking more than other dorms or throwing more parties than other dorms,” he said. “We just want to have an inclusive community and host fun things for freshmen if they want to participate.”
The Observer obtained email messages that were sent during the 2019-2020 academic year between roughly 200 residents and alumni of the all-male dorm, the main purpose of which appears to be sharing information about social and dorm events, such as parties and interhall sports competitions. Zahm houses about 170 undergraduate residents in a normal academic year. About 10 email addresses in the recipient lists were accounts from outside of Notre Dame.
A handful of students communicate through message chains like these, which are shared with the entire recipient list. Joe Day told The Observer these email chains are opt-out and are sent to almost the entire dorm, except for hall staff, but that this type of messaging hasn’t been as common this academic year — mainly because there have been fewer social events happening in the residence hall due to the pandemic.
However, beyond serving as a way to communicate about social events, the emails obtained by The Observer contained strong language, as well as often-graphic and misogynistic jokes regarding sex and sexual assault.
Screenshots of these email chains circulated among students a couple of weeks ago, further fueling conversations about a social and party culture some claim enables sexual assault and about whether this had anything to do with the University’s decision to close Zahm.
Rakoczy Russell said she did not know of the 2019-2020 emails “or any similar emails that may have been sent to Zahm residents this academic year.” She also said director of residential life Nathan Elliot, who supervises Zahm, had “no knowledge of these emails in this or any year.”
“I have no knowledge of any such listserv myself, either in the past or this year, so I can’t help you there,” Zahm’s rector Fr. Dailey wrote in his email to The Observer. “I would emphasize that what you have described certainly sounds concerning but this is the first I have heard of it.”
Some of the messages referenced women by name. In an email chain dated Oct. 9, 2019, with the subject “Thunderdome,” a first-year student tells a junior not to tell a woman he mentions by name “about your loss tonight — or do … some wh*res dig the pity sex.”
The first-year student seemed to be challenging the older student to a drinking competition, to which the latter replied: “Listen here you juiced up, red dot piece of sh*t. I don’t know what the f*ck is wrong with you p*ssy freshmen thinking the only way to drink is through thunderdome but I’m about to break you worse than you broke the quad door.”
“I’ll teach you how to f*cking finish after I’m standing over your puking body as you cry about how you don’t belong in this dorm,” the junior’s email continued. “… I’m about to make you my little b*tch after 10 margs. I’m about to give you months of content for your therapist after you need to resolve these daddy issues … I’ll f*ck you until you love me you f*cking m*ricon.”
In another email chain dated Oct. 17, 2019, a student who called himself the House’s “self appointed leader” offered others condoms, he said, in an effort to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. For those residents who asked him for bigger condoms, the author continued, he would have to “manually inspect” and “take photographs for research purposes.”
Another email chain shared from Jan. 22 to Feb. 22, 2020, begins as an invitation to an interhall event. In one of the replies, one resident challenged another, saying he was “probably struggling with secondhand chlamydia” from other students allegedly “running a train on the only girl desperate enough to f*ck you.”
The other resident replied, “Sex should be loving, caring, tender, and from a place of love, unlike the brutal a** r*pe that is about to go down when I rail you in this Thunderdome. Actually, on second thought, I’m excited to f*ck a virgin like you.”
The existence of similar email chains was confirmed by multiple current and past Zahm House residents who talked to The Observer, all of whom were in the recipient list.
“I remember my first dorm party,” reads an Aug. 29, 2019, email sent with a non-Notre Dame Gmail address, inviting first-year residents to a social event. “I ocho paneled my door with my rock h*rd c*ck and f*cked a Smick through each hole. I miss when I had that endurance, now I can only manage seven at a time.”
“Smicks” is a term occasionally used to reference Saint Mary’s students. In another email from Feb. 19, 2020, the same Gmail sender wrote: “no women have anything like the p*ssy that comes from Saint Mary’s College.”
The email also referred to Saint Mary’s students as “smick sl*ts” and “wh*res” before going on to discuss an interhall game with Dunne Hall, where it said a team member “is gonna f*ck one of those Dunne p*ssies so hard he will get Title IX’ed.”
BAVO coordinator Liz Coulston said she was unaware of these email chains.
“Any time sexual assault is joked about, it perpetuates rape culture,” she said in an email to The Observer. “This is entirely unacceptable. The tri-campus community continues to work tirelessly to address these issues and build a healthy and respectful culture.”
Stephanie Johnson, a 2019 Saint Mary’s alumna, also commented on the content of the Zahm email chains.
“While many Saint Mary’s students arrive to campus and learn of how we must always protect each other, other dorms are able to make jokes about what we’re trying to protect each other from,” she wrote to The Observer.
Johnson also referenced the partying culture prevalent in dorms at Notre Dame.
“I do not say this to demonize the men of Zahm, they are simply being made an example of the culture Notre Dame has allowed for so long,” she said. “… I would say while Notre Dame is co-ed, men still clearly hold more power on campus in terms of how they can use their dorm spaces and the way that enables the opportunity for more incidents to occur.”
Zahm residents discuss dorm’s closing
Past efforts to address the so-called “troubling culture” have included a ban from RecSports activity and reconfiguration of common rooms, per the University’s decision email. Castaneda said there have also been multiple efforts by Zahm residents themselves to improve the community within Zahm.
He said, for example, that in order to be able to have a common room in their room configuration, residents must be trained in the GreeNDot program — a violence prevention strategy. Ever since Castaneda was a first-year student, Zahm hall staff and residents have engaged in “continuous conversations” about how to improve the culture, he said, including in regards to issues of sexual assault and vandalism.
Castaneda said when he moved into Zahm as a first-year, one of the first conversations the rector at the time had with his class centered around Zahm’s reputation, and included topics of sexual assault among vandalism and other issues, as well as how the dorm could improve.
Day said he is against the decision the University made — the issues regarding COVID and vandalism, he said, were temporary and could have been fixed.
“You do notice there’s a certain level of independence that Zahm has,” he noted. “I think that’s the main cause of what the University doesn’t like — it’s the fact that as a community, we make our own rules. And because of the independence there’s some bad things that sometimes go on, whether it’s a mob mentality or just a disrespect to the University in general.”
Both Day and Castaneda said one reason for Zahm’s tight-knit community is the way other University students view their reputation.
“As soon as you get placed into Zahm, you feel that [stigma], and I feel like that creates sort of a badge of pride … I think that makes our community very strong,” Castaneda said.
A final, unprecedented decision: What this means for residential life at Notre Dame
Residential life associate vice president Rakoczy Russell told The Observer she had no reason to believe the decision to close Zahm will set a precedent for any other current residence halls.
Furthermore, she said, “although Zahm will serve as the swing hall for major renovations for the foreseeable future, we expect that Zahm will return to a traditional hall again one day after the completion of its own major renovation.”
Though she recognized the impact the decision would have on current members of Zahm House, Rakoczy Russell wrote to The Observer “… we no longer believe the community is equipped to welcome new students in a manner that reflects the best integration into the Notre Dame family that we can offer and is owed to every student.”
Castaneda, who has been a part of Zahm’s Welcome Weekend team for two years, said “I just feel incredibly disrespected … because I feel like we always put a lot of effort and work into making sure that our freshmen felt welcome,” he said. “And from having conversations with the freshmen and the current sophomores now, I say that the overwhelming majority have felt welcome.”
In response to the decision as a whole, Castaneda said, “Zahm is not a perfect dorm. But I don’t think any dorm on campus is perfect.”
Fr. Dailey echoed Rakoczy Russell’s concern for first-year students, saying he doesn’t “want to invite more first-year students into a situation where, randomly distributed, they will nevertheless predictably encounter things they feel they cannot challenge, even when appalled.”
“It’s not about one issue, or any given incident, it’s about Notre Dame calling our communities to very high standards of conduct and accountability and finding patterns that fall short here of what we owe the residents,” he wrote. “Precisely because we believe in their goodness we infer from these regular patterns despite random assignments that something is being passed on that we have to put a pause on.”
First-year Zahm resident Michael Bsales said he was grateful for his time in Zahm and described the community as “welcoming” and a “warm environment,” where he has made his closest friends and become acquainted with many of the Zahm upperclassmen.
“[Zahm] gave us [first-years] a lot more mentorship and leadership than a lot of other dorms,” he said. “And I think it’s kind of a shame that the school doesn’t recognize that like I do.”
Sophomore Josh Swanson was never in Zahm — he transferred out of his first residence hall and into St. Edward’s Hall after his first year — but he spoke to how an emphasis on dorm life created an odd cultural dynamic within residence halls, especially men’s dorms.
Swanson discussed how students at Notre Dame are randomly sorted into dorms where they often remain for most of their time as undergraduates, which he said produces an “in-between” dorm culture that shifts between a fraternity environment and that of a residential hall from any other college campus.
He said during his dorm’s Welcome Weekend events, upperclassmen encouraged first-years to flirt with women, collect Snapchat usernames from them and serenade them, which created a dynamic he said he felt uncomfortable in — and in which he said others could feel uneasy as well.
For instance, he said, “anyone in the LGBTQ community would probably also be made pretty uncomfortable by that. Because if you don’t fit into that perfectly from the very beginning, it kind of just sets you up to fail down the road.”
From the start, he said, there is an expectation to participate in activities, though not everyone is accommodated in that expectation. And going forward, for example, many of the all-male dorm events are sporting events “geared to a certain demographic, and if you don’t fit … you’re kind of left hanging.”
“I wonder if Notre Dame is trying to take a serious look at their culture … I think Notre Dame themselves should take accountability and figure out how they want to fix the dorm environment,” Swanson said. “I mean, I have a couple of ideas, but I think whatever they do has to be a little more drastic than just closing a single dorm or closing any dorm down, really, and then just going about their day.”