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Observer Editorial: It’s been 50 years. When will our campuses be safe?

Editor’s note: This story includes mentions of sexual assault. 

Fifty years ago in the fall of 1972, the University of Notre Dame enrolled its first class of women. One hundred twenty-five freshmen and 240 transfers joined the once all-male student body and, in the half-century since, Notre Dame women have boldly contributed to the accomplishments and community of our tri-campus. 

Fifty years, and our tri-campus still isn’t safe.

Last week, at least five students between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s came forward on social media to share stories of alleged sexual assault. Three said they reported their experiences to Notre Dame’s Title IX office. None believe they got justice.

As leaders of an organization comprised of students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross College, The Observer Editorial Board is troubled by these stories. It is our responsibility to serve this community — that means fostering a safe and compassionate workplace where sexual misconduct and violence are not tolerated. Our Letters to the Editor seek to give a voice to that community. We invite you to share your story if you are comfortable doing so. The Observer cannot publish every submission, but at the very least, we will listen.

In the last several months, Notre Dame has hosted several events to commemorate both the 50th anniversary of Title IX and coeducation. Bearing these milestones in mind, tri-campus administrators have not met our expectations for communicating about sexual violence — an issue that impacts all three student bodies. While we understand administrators can’t legally comment on ongoing disciplinary cases, students, especially survivors and allies, demand acknowledgment from campus leaders. 

For example, in the wake of derogatory Yik Yak posts about Saint Mary’s students last fall, Saint Mary’s president Katie Conboy released a statement stating she and her administration “[stood] in solidarity” with students. In addition, she advocated for more opportunities to build tri-campus relations. We commend Conboy for speaking up about how demeaning language hurt the College’s students. However, we encourage her, University President Fr. John Jenkins and Holy Cross President Marco Clark to address their respective students about how they will prevent incidents of sexual violence in our community.

The problem is not a lack of resources; Notre Dame, for example, has many. SpeakUp is the University’s primary online reporting tool, not only for incidents of sexual misconduct but all forms of bias, discrimination and harassment. It is comprehensive and user-friendly, providing students with examples of harassment, confidential and non-confidential resources, what to expect after filing a report and strategies for helping friends.

But in the 2022 Inclusive Campus Student Survey, the University revealed that only 15% of student respondents knew how to use SpeakUp to report harassment, and only 24% of respondents even knew the purpose of the resource. Further, the survey observed that of the nearly 4,400 incidents of adverse treatment reported by more than 2,000 respondents, only about 300  — a little less than 7% — were officially reported. And then, only 7% of that 7% of reports were filed through SpeakUp, less than 0.5% of incidents experienced.

That is the problem. What good can these resources provide if students don’t know that they exist, much less how to use them? And in the face of the silence of leadership, do students even trust our institutions to listen when they “speak up?”

The survey also pointed to the intersectionality of this issue. According to the 2022 results, 31% of cisgender women said they at least somewhat agreed with the statement, “I have seriously considered leaving Notre Dame.” Thirty-three percent of students of color concurred. These statistics correspond to the students who came forward last week: Of the five, four are cisgender women, three are Black and one is non-binary. These are the students our campus is failing — these are the students who are hurt. 

In addition, three of the five students attend Saint Mary’s. Based on the relative size of the schools in the tri-campus community, we are alarmed by the disproportionate number of Saint Mary’s students who have been impacted by sexual violence. 

In recent years, the College has improved the accessibility of student resources with the revival of the Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) and the student-led group, Belles Supporting Belles. The College also hosted its inaugural sexual violence symposium last spring, hosting a variety of speakers and events in a week that culminated with Take Back the Night. 

While these initiatives are promising steps in the right direction, Saint Mary’s students deserve a more complete set of resources to address the ongoing issue of sexual assault. Currently, Saint Mary’s students can choose to report to several confidential sources, like the BAVO coordinator, or submit a non-confidential incident report to the Title IX office. However, in comparison to Notre Dame’s SpeakUp, the resources for reporting and healing after an incident of sexual violence seem less comprehensive. The Saint Mary’s Title IX website is merely a page in the Student Life section of the College’s website — rather than a larger, individual site like SpeakUp or Notre Dame Title IX. On the page, there is no link to Notre Dame or Holy Cross resources, despite students being required to submit their reports to the school where the incident took place. Although the Saint Mary’s student population is significantly smaller than Notre Dame’s, it is clear that the College needs to continue expanding avenues for survivors of sexual violence. 

But, of course, our community includes three schools — Holy Cross students face similar problems to Saint Mary’s students and in addition to their own unique obstacles. Similar to Saint Mary’s, Holy Cross’ online resources are confined to a subsection of its Campus Life page, and other than a helpful diagram of reporting options linked at the bottom, they do not offer the depth of knowledge of SpeakUp or Notre Dame’s Title IX website. Holy Cross, in fact, links directly to Notre Dame’s Title IX site, but the Holy Cross resources Notre Dame offers can be broken and contain inaccuracies. One link to a PDF of Holy Cross resources returns a 404 error, while the options listed for reporting offenders from Holy Cross link to the Title IX office at the wrong Holy Cross — the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. This lack of clarity discourages Holy Cross students from reporting misconduct, particularly Gateways, as these students already struggle with navigating resources and reconciling their identities between two schools. And as first-years, Gateways are also at greater risk in their first semester of college.

Clear communication is especially important when the very nature of Title IX is confusing and complex. Notre Dame’s Title IX website explains that Title IX is a law enacted as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that bars discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual violence. However, both the scope and minutiae of the law are unclear to many students, as Title IX is also commonly used in reference to athletics. Misunderstandings about what Title IX is — and uncertainty about the Title IX process — discourage students from coming forward and allow administrators to hide behind bureaucratic jargon. To increase awareness of resources, tri-campus leaders must also increase awareness of Title IX. 

But mere promotional efforts will not be enough to address what has become a deep wound in our tri-campus culture. The fact that at least five students have taken to their personal social media to share their stories demonstrates a fundamental lack of trust in our institutions to handle cases on their own. The act of sharing these stories itself has only worsened that trust, as students once unfamiliar with Title IX reporting are now most aware of the students who feel betrayed by it. Tri-campus leaders must not only promote their resources appropriately but earn back student trust.

Of course, it is also on us, the students, to create a safe campus community. At Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, for example, you can become greeNDot certified through a popular bystander intervention course. However, all trainings this fall at Notre Dame have already reached maximum capacity. Students, it seems, are eager to combat sexual violence in the ways that we can.

What about the adults?