Do the university’s recent sexual misconduct policy revisions address the problem’s roots?

Sexual assault persists as one of Notre Dame’s darkest problems. Dramatic changes to the sexual misconduct policy over the past several years raise serious questions about how effectively the university understands and deals with sexual misconduct on its campus.

The background

Cathy Pieronek, assistant dean of the College of Engineering and a member of the Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention (CSAP), explained that the policy changes enacted in the 2011-2012 school year evolved from a Department of Education (DOE) investigation, the DOE’s “Dear Colleague Letter” and changing leadership in the Office of Student Affairs (OSA).

The DOE launched a 7-month investigation of Notre Dame’s handling of sexual misconduct cases in 2011 following the controversial 2010 Lizzy Seeberg case, which garnered national public attention. The federal government examined how Notre Dame, among other universities, addressed such cases. In the end, Notre Dame “admitted to no wrongdoing, but signed a written agreement to make changes,” reported Margaret Fosmoe in an October 19, 2013, article in the South Bend Tribune.

Under the new agreement, the university is required to inform both students and the public about how to report sexual misconduct, a commitment that includes publicizing the resources and services available to both complainants and accused persons. The agreement also requires the university to make known all legal and administrative disciplinary procedures.

The federal government wanted Notre Dame to assess what it was doing to make students aware of the new policy,” Pieronek told the Rover. “So, in the past few years, we have taken steps like refreshing the freshman orientation programs [College HAS Issues] and the Contemporary Topics curriculum.”

The “Dear Colleague Letter,” issued by the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights on April 4, 2011, described sexual misconduct and assault as a form of gender discrimination under Title IX. The letter, which applies to schools from kindergarten through post-secondary schools receiving federal tax dollars, was a response to the high frequency of reported incidents on college campuses.

The ‘Dear Colleague Letter’ did not change the law, but interpreted and enforced the existing law differently,” noted Father Ron Vierling, MFC, rector of Morrissey Manor. “The Office of Civil Rights deemed sexual harassment in any manner, including sexual assault, to be egregious forms of the kind of discrimination that Title IX was meant to prevent.”

With this new interpretation, colleges are legally required to conduct their own investigations within 60 days of receiving reports of sexual misconduct, and to inform all students of all available services and resources.

In the midst of these national reforms, instability in the OSA also contributed to the drastic and seemingly hurried policy changes.

In a span of about five years, [the Office of] Student Affairs had three different vice presidents: Bill Kirk; Father Thomas Doyle, CSC; and Erin Hoffman Harding,” Pieronek explained. “Each leader comes in with fresh eyes and has a different idea of how to best tackle these sorts of problems.”

It is up to the OSA to determine how Notre Dame will institute the federal policies, decide on any areas to tighten and disseminate the policies to students and staff.

An evolving policy

As recently as the 2009-2010 school year, sexual misconduct was classified as “General Misconduct” in du Lac, and was defined by three vague bullet points and three lines of text, describing it as “a serious violation” that could result in “disciplinary suspension or permanent dismissal.”

The following school year, however, du Lacgave the evolving policy its own section apart from general misconduct. The expanded policy now included general examples of sexual misconduct, the university’s definition of “consent,” incident report procedure, information on privacy and confidentiality, resources for healing and an outline of the disciplinary process.

The federal government’s influence over the current policy, made official for the 2011-2012 school year, is evident. The university understands sexual misconduct—including assault and harassment—as explicit Title IX violations. Emphasis in the recently-revamped policies lays on the reporting and disciplinary processes: du Lacoutlines the avenues of reporting (criminal, through the university’s disciplinary process or both) and what complainants may expect in the revamped reporting process.

All Notre Dame employees—except for counselors at the University Counseling Center, University Health professionals and religious staff working in a religious capacity—are now obligated to report incidents. Previously, only “University officials” such as deans, Student Affairs officials, campus security and “other administrators with supervisory responsibilities” were bound to submit formal reports.

According to du Lac, complainants and accused persons alike are assigned a Sexual Assault Resource Coordinator to “explain and navigate the complainant’s reporting options and available support services” and “provide [accused students] with support, information and assistance.”

While Notre Dame is legally required to investigate every report it receives, another crucial facet of the refined policy is the role of the complainant. Complainants now determine how far investigations go: So long as there is sufficient evidence, a complainant may elect to see through the whole process or end it at any point. Likewise, the complainant may now address the accused, which is a far cry from the lack of dialogue allowed in the previous policy’s disciplinary hearings.

The old policy was unsatisfying for complainants because they felt like their voices were not being heard,” Pieronek expounded. “For some, simply being heard was not enough, but insufficient evidence and limited community resources can make cases tough to investigate. The goal is to make sure the complainant feels heard and respected to the largest extent possible.”

The numbers

As of the time of this publication, Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) count five reported sexual assaults for the fall 2013 semester, including an attempted rape reported on September 9 and the most recent forcible offense occuring on November 7.

According to Clery Act statistics on NDSP’s website, 7 reported forcible sexual offenses occurred on campus in 2012, with three of those taking place in residence halls.

An Observerarticle from October 8, 2013, documented the presentation of last year’s internal review conducted by CSAP. The article indicated that the total number of reported sexual offenses for the 2012-2013 year was actually a staggering 24, with 17 offenses occurring off campus. Dr. William Stackman, Title IX Deputy Coordinator, explained that 16 of those cases went to investigation and all accused parties were found guilty. Five of those cases, the Observerreported, involved male athletes who were reported by their coaches and trainers.

The survey…focused primarily on students’ understanding of the policy and reporting procedures—not the policy itself. The results have been helpful in improving our education and outreach efforts,” Stackman explained in an email to the Rover. Questions about the policy’s effectiveness and benefits to students were deferred to university spokesman Dennis Brown, who said that the university commented on the policies elsewhere in the media.

William Dempsey, chairman of the Notre Dame alumni group Sycamore Trust, compiled Clery Act statistics from 2007 through 2011 of US Catholic universities with over 10,000 students. Out of 14 such schools, Notre Dame ranked second only to Boston College in the number of reported forcible sexual offenses. With 7 assaults in 2010 and 8 in 2011—the years of policy change—Notre Dame’s number of incidents per 5,000 students was 11.79. The 5-year total was 31.

Dempsey brought to the Rovers attention another concerning statistic.

The Department of Justice conducted a comprehensive study of sexual assault on college campuses in December 2000 and found that “fewer than 5 percent of completed and attempted rapes were reported to law enforcement officials” by college women. Although this is a national average and university officials will never know about all of the unreported incidents, “the ratio of actual sexual assaults and reported assaults is very high, so the reports give a very misleading picture of what is really happening,” explained Dempsey.

Sarah Wake, Notre Dame’s director of institutional equity and Title IX coordinator, is quoted in the aforementioned South Bend Tribunearticle as saying that the university strives to “cultivate a culture of reporting when it comes to sexual assault, harassment or misconduct” through its revised policy. As Pieronek explained, this has most likely led to the “seeming uptick in reports.”

What is to be done?

The staggering number of reported forcible sexual assaults over the past several years—and the reasonable assertion that many more unreported incidents occur—indicate that the university is facing a plague far worse than it may be willing and able to address.

The problem lies not necessarily in the policy itself, which demonstrates a willingness to administer justice and investigate as many instances of sexual misconduct and assault as possible. The university deserves credit for the abundance of medical, pastoral and legal resources available to students who have been involved in such cases.

Rather, the university has failed and continues to fail to take an adequate stand against the causesof sexual misconduct on its campus: alcohol abuse and the social climate within dormitories that such abuse fuels.

The university takes very seriously students’ understanding of what consent is and is not. Notre Dame is required by law—and for good reason—to make such distinctions. This distinction become problematic, however, when the the concept of consent is perverted to become the only more for sexual behavior; as long as both parties agree, anything goes. The Observereditorial staff professed in a September 26, 2013 piece, “You deserve someone who fully consents to be with you, and they deserve to be asked for consent.” This understanding of sexuality and human dignity is fundamentally incongruent with the university’s official position.

Theology is critically important here,” Pieronek explained, “and the university needs to expose students early to whythe Church says what it does and what it means to really respect yourself. I would like to see something more, but students would respond best to student-led movements…made more mainstream by the administration.”

Furthermore, if the university wants to truly commit itself to student safety and encouraging healthy student interaction, the Office of Community Standards’ new procedural disciplinary policies regarding consumption of alcohol are insufficient. The university recognizes the link between intoxication and sexual misconduct across a variety of venues, including NDSP crime alerts, freshman education and du Lac, but the administrative initiative to remedy these ills simultaneously inspires little confidence.

In conjunction with the top-down approach, students must also assume a greater role in keeping one another safe by taking control of where they are and assuming responsibility for their actions.

Women are more vulnerable in men’s halls, and ‘parties’ simply do not need to look like dorm parties,” said Pieronek. “We need more students stepping up and saying that things are wrong and acting with greater discernment.”

Father Vierling and the Morrissey Manor staff make an exemplary effort to understand these problems holistically: “The issue of sexual assault…cannot be isolated from wider discussions such as the link between alcohol and sexual assault, and the relationship between men and women in general. In Morrissey Manor, my Assistant Rectors have done a wonderful job through their bi-weekly ‘Art of Manliness’ sessions to educate on these very topics,” Fr. Vierling told the Rover.

It is not enough simply to reference the policy changes as evidence that Notre Dame is confronting sexual misconduct head-on. Getting to the root of the problem will require the university to build policies around the fact that sexual misconduct does not exist in a vacuum, but is inextricably linked to alcohol consumption, the general moral acceptance of fornication and the dorm party culture. It will not and cannot be solved overnight, but Notre Dame needs to hold its students to a higher standard and teach them to expect more from themselves and their peers.

I think everyone agrees that the university, in terms of its outreach and educational programming, has made significant progress on addressing this sensitive issue, but we also understand there is much more work to be done,” concluded Fr. Vierling.

Lilia Draime is a junior history major with a minor in constitutional studies. She dreams of one day moving to Maui and owning a St. Bernard. Share your wildest dreams with her at