Helena Birdsell, Staff Writer

About a year after the tragic death of Lizzy Seeberg, the university has announced a new policy regarding sexual assault on campus.  These changes are the result of an investigation conducted by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

According to the US Department of Education’s press release, OCR’s investigation was “agency-initiated, and not based on a complaint.” It was conducted through campus visits, interviews with university faculty and officials, an evaluation of the university’s policies and procedures, and an examination of past sexual harassment files.

Before the conclusion of the investigation, the university voluntarily entered into a settlement agreement addressing the issues found in the investigation. According to the US Department of Education’s press release, “Specifically, the agreement requires the university to ensure that students and the public know how to report sexual harassment and what to expect from the university and law enforcement after making such a report.”

According to the resolution agreement, Notre Dame agreed to communicate clearly several aspects of its policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment.  The revised policy emphasizes that accusations of sexual harassment, which include cyber-harassment and intimidation that prevents victims from reporting sexual harassment or participating in investigatory proceedings, are evaluated using the “preponderance of evidence” legal standard, which is typically applied in civil cases.

Another element of the revised policy is the clear communication of the complainant’s ability “to pursue a criminal complaint with the appropriate law enforcement agency, to pursue the university’s disciplinary process, or to pursue both processes simultaneously.”

Under the new policy, complainants do not have to be in the same room as the accused during the disciplinary hearings, as the university will provide “alternative arrangements” for the complainant. Furthermore, to echo the process available to the accused, complainants are now able to instigate a case review based on a “procedural defect in the disciplinary process” or the emergence of new evidence that was unavailable or unknown at the time of the initial hearing.

Finally, together with the Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention (CSAP), the university “will create a focus group process, survey, climate check or other means of assessing the effectiveness of the steps taken” in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the modifications to its policy and procedures. Notre Dame will implement this process within three months of procuring OCR’s approval.

Changes in the university policy result in mixed feelings among university faculty. For the last two years, Dean Cathy Pieronek served as a Sexual Assault Resource Person (SARP), where she provided students affected by sexual assault with resources and information regarding available processes and support. With the revised policy, however, this position was eliminated, and Pieronek now remains a member of the executive committee of the Committee for Sexual Assault Prevention (CSAP).  CSAP advises the Office of Student Affairs on support for sexual assault victims.

Pieronek describes the revised policy as “federal government-driven,” as opposed to the previous “victim-driven process.” According to Pieronek, the process should allow the victim to “regain control,” which she fears the new policy does not necessarily allow.

“The university has agreed to abide by what the federal government has imposed, but in my own opinion, I think this removes some of the power from the victim,” she said.

Furthermore, the US Department of Education sexual harassment policy applies to kindergarten through twelfth grade and college education.  Pieronek expressed some dissatisfaction with this policy.

“You deal with K-12 students fundamentally differently than you deal with college students, because the latter are adults while the former are not,” she said.  “I don’t think that, in the college context, it is necessarily appropriate to substitute the federal government’s judgment for the victim’s.”

One of the difficulties surrounding sexual harassment cases is that they often boil down to the differences in testimony between the two parties.  When asked about the new policy’s ability to address “he said/she said” types of cases, Pieronek commented, “There is no system that can deal with this sort of situation perfectly, including the criminal justice system. While there may be physical evidence that could lead to the conclusion that an assault occurred, the key issue will always be consent, and only the two people in the room know whether or not that was freely given.”

Regardless of how effective a policy is, though, it cannot completely prevent sexual assault and discrimination on its own.

Ann Firth, associate vice-president of student affairs and Title IX coordinator, commented, “The changes in the policy provide a very important opportunity for our campus to talk about the issue of sexual violence.”

As Pieronek suggested, “The best protection someone has in this situation is to take control of one’s self.”

Some ways that students can gain control are more obvious, like avoiding over-indulgence in alcohol and other substances. There are more practical, creative solutions available, however, which Pieronek proposed to undergraduates.

“We hear that women are more vulnerable in men’s residence halls, which is where the parties typically tend to be,” she said.  “Why shouldn’t women have the sorts of parties they want to have, on their own territory, where they can be more mindful of their fellow students and perhaps be safer?”

Helena Birdsell is a junior economics major.  Contact her at hbirdsel@nd.edu.