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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?

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Observer Editorial: Students deserve more than just group counseling

As the first full month of the semester comes to a close and midterms are on the horizon, it is essential that mental well-being is a priority. The tri-campus community boasts a multitude of resources for student mental health, but it’s time to ask: are they enough?

In a winter 2021 survey sent to students by the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being, 90% of students surveyed expressed “some level of concern” about their emotional well-being. With this amount of demand, the tri-campus community must invest more time, money and resources into caring for the mental health of its students. 

Right now at Notre Dame, the two most prominent resources for mental well-being are the University Counseling Center (UCC) and the McDonald Center, colloquially known as McWell. The UCC advertises free counseling services for all Notre Dame students as well as psychiatric evaluations and group counseling sessions. On its website, the UCC reports that approximately 16% of the Notre Dame student body utilizes its services every year, with 30% of students utilizing the center by the time they graduate.

Similarly at Saint Mary’s, students can find counseling services within the Angela Athletic and Wellness Complex. The Health and Wellness Center is located just inside the main south entrance of the complex. The Health and Counseling Center has four full-time counselors on staff who are available to assist students by appointment. 

While the UCC serves an essential role on campus, it struggles to accommodate student demand for counseling and psychiatric care. Because of the limited number of counselors on staff and the high need for individual counseling, the UCC has encouraged residential hall staff and other campus leaders to direct their residents toward group counseling sessions instead of individual counseling this year. While group counseling can be helpful for some people, it’s often difficult to share mental health struggles with a professional, let alone a group of strangers.

Students who do receive time slots for individual counseling are met by the UCC’s care plan,  which is built to find “brief, solution-focused treatment” for their emotional needs. And although the counseling at the UCC is advertised to students as free, it is only the first 12 sessions that are free of charge. The number of free sessions is the same at the Holy Cross Counseling Center. While this might be enough sessions for some, many students require more individual counseling than the brief plan that these centers are currently offering.  

In contrast, the Saint Mary’s Health and Counseling Center only offers enrolled students up to eight free counseling sessions per semester. While students can receive care from their designated counselor throughout the semester, they can only schedule appointments every other week. This makes it difficult, especially for those who are experiencing acute issues, to see their counselor as regularly as they need. And while the counseling centers can offer referrals to off-campus services, the cost of individual counseling or therapy can become a major barrier to students receiving the care they need. 

In order to support students fully, all three schools must direct more money and resources to make individual counseling more accessible to students. All students should have access to consistent, individual counseling for as long as they need it. 

One possible step to improvement is to bring back the mental health days of the 2020-21 school year — keeping the current calendar but adding period days for students to maintain their mental well-being. It is already a practice for some professors to recommend their students take a mental health day or two if needed, but expanding the practice to apply to all classes would benefit students hesitant to take time for themselves and professors worried about telling students to skip class.   

Recently in states such as Utah, Maine, Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, Virginia and Arizona, legislative actions have passed to allow high school students to take mental health days. This trend of legislative action has continued into 2022 with Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia introducing measures in support of mental health days for students.  

The tri-campus already has some helpful mental health resources, and it’s important to take advantage of them. But our three schools must do more, especially when it comes to the availability of individual counseling and mental health days. As it stands, the tri-campus is sending students the message that some mental health concerns are too big to handle. They shouldn’t be.

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Observer Editorial: Numbers to know: Safety and wellness rolodex

Credit: Maggie Klaers
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Eating Disorder Awareness Club educates on body image, resources

Editor’s note: This article contains discussions of eating disorders.

The Eating Disorder Awareness Club (EDAC) was founded by Julia O’Grady, a senior at Saint Mary’s College, during the summer of 2021. Since then, the club has expanded to include a Notre Dame chapter led by junior Mollie McKone. The Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame chapters work together, and EDAC represents the tri-campus community. 

McKone explained that the mission of EDAC is to build a community with those afflicted by eating disorders.

The mission of EDAC is “to make a place where people can find resources and find other people who may have struggled in the past and have a community and a network of people they can talk to,” McKone said. 

O’Grady said previously, there was no organization on campus allocated for eating disorders, and she formed the club to be a place for education.

EDAC was formed to “advocate for those who have experienced, are experiencing or may be at risk for experiencing an eating disorder,” she said. “The goal is to educate and break down stigmas that are associated with eating disorders and to promote awareness about the proper way to go about educating about eating disorders.”

MccKone seconded the need to destigmatize eating disorders.

“We saw a need for an organization that advocated [for] and recognized that there needs to be a culture shift on college campuses about the way we look at eating and the way we have discourse about eating and exercising and recognizing that there is a real problem,” McKone said. 

McKone explained that eating disorders are prevalent on college campuses due to people attempting to gain control over their lives during a time of change.

“Unfortunately, food and exercise are really easy things to grasp on to [and control], and a lot of people find themselves in an unhealthy situation,” McKone said. 

EDAC hopes to bring attention to the resources that are available on campus for those who may be struggling with an eating disorder, McKone said.  

“The University Counseling Center (UCC) has a [few] therapists that specialize in eating disorders. But, they were seeing such an influx in cases of not only people who are being diagnosed with eating disorders, but people who are coming back from residential treatment reintegrating into Notre Dame,” McKone said. “The UCC doesn’t have the resources for [this demand].”

O’Grady explained that EDAC hopes to supplement the services offered by UCC with its own events. The club plans to host a mindfulness yoga event to work on developing healthy coping mechanisms. EDAC will also plan weekly trips to the grocery store to provide people with a safe space and extra support while grocery shopping.

Another initiative is the body positive project which is being led by sophomore Bella Henriques, McKone noted.

“[The movement] was started through Stanford research which talks about how food insecurity creates eating habits and how the way we talk about diet culture affects eating disorders,” she explained.

The goal of the project is to train people to run discussion sessions and equip them with the necessary resources to talk about eating and exercising. These sessions will be free for anyone to attend, whether they are a part of the club or not, McKone said. 

In addition, EDAC is looking forward to participating in National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAwareness Week). NEDAwareness Week takes place the last week of February and is a campaign to educate people about eating disorders and support those affected by eating disorders. 

Last year for NEDAwareness Week, EDAC partnered with Active Minds for “In Our Own Words,” a student-led conversation where students sent in submissions about their experiences with eating disorders and shared their stories. Other events included conversations about body image and a candlelight vigil at the Grotto, McKone explained.

Although EDAC is a relatively new club, they are looking to gain new members and form a Holy Cross chapter, McKone said. Anyone in the tri-campus community is welcome to join the club or attend any of the events. 

O’Grady said the most memorable part of being involved with EDAC has been getting to know people from the tri-campus.

“[I enjoy] getting to know girls at St. Mary’s that I probably wouldn’t have crossed paths with otherwise. They have been so supportive in my recovery journey,” she said.

EDAC has group meetings every month and more information can be found on EDAC’s Instagram @ed_awareness_club.

Caroline Collins

Contact Caroline at ccolli23@nd.edu