Notre Dame making changes to sex assault response

The University of Notre Dame has agreed to changes in how it

handles allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, including

allowing accusers to appeal the results of a disciplinary hearing,

following a seven-month investigation by the U.S. Department of

Education, officials said Friday.

The department’s Office of Civil Rights began a review of the

school’s procedures in December, months after a student from

neighboring St. Mary’s College reportedly accused a Notre Dame

football player of touching her breasts. She later committed

suicide, and her family complained that Notre Dame’s investigation

was superficial. At the time, the university’s president said

campus police conducted a thorough investigation.

The student wasn’t specifically cited in the Education

Department’s report, which said the federal review ”was not based

on a pending complaint” but included examining media reports and

university files of sexual harassment. The investigation did not

address whether the university’s responses to any specific reports

or complaints of sexual harassment were in compliance with federal

law.

The report said it found that Notre Dame’s sexual harassment

policy is widely available and provides examples of prohibited

behavior. It also said the university had taken a number of

preventive measures against sexual harassment, including education

and training.

But it also found that students and university staff were not

always clearly instructed on the steps that would be followed after

a complaint was made, including letting people know they could

pursue a criminal complaint while also pursuing a disciplinary

complaint with the school.

The department said the university’s policies and procedures

related to sexual harassment and nondiscrimination were described

in numerous university policies and documents, and ”this was a

source of confusion.”

”These policies are not consolidated and were somewhat

inconsistent, particularly in identifying appropriate complaint

recipients,” the report said.

Investigators also found several instances where the school’s

investigation of a report of sexual misconduct or assault took more

than 60 days pending the conclusion of a criminal

investigation.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, Notre Dame’s vice president for student

affairs, said the review showed the school it has ”outstanding

initiatives in place, while also providing direction for several

areas in which we can make modifications for improvement.”

”Sexual misconduct can have no place at Notre Dame, and we are

committed to continuing to protect the safety and human dignity of

every student,” he said.

Notre Dame agreed to provide alternative arrangements for

complainants who do not want to be in the same room as the accused

during a disciplinary hearing and to give complainants the same

rights to appeal a disciplinary hearing as are given to an accused

student.

The agreement requires the university to ensure that students

know how to report sexual harassment and what to expect after

making such a report. The university also agreed to initiate and

conclude its sexual harassment and violence investigations within

60 days, except in extraordinary circumstances.

The Department of Education investigation also found that while

Notre Dame routinely uses a ”preponderance of the evidence”

standard for its sexual harassment investigations, its written

procedures do not specify that the school uses that standard. It’s

a lower standard of proof than ”beyond a reasonable doubt,” which

is used in criminal cases.

Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, said the

department is concerned about sexual violence on campuses.

”No student can learn if they are fearful of sexual harassment

or assault,” she said. ”We launched this investigation to ensure

that college students have an educational environment free from

sexual violence and other forms of sexual harassment. We commend

the university for its willingness to show leadership in this area

by improving its efforts to address and prevent sexual harassment

of students on its campus.”