Notre Dame to change assault policy

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- 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."