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Prosecutor Urges Victims of Sexual Assault to Report Directly to Special Victims Unit; Notre Dame Disagrees

Ken Cotter, prosecutor for St. Joseph County in Indiana, recently urged victims of campus sexual assault at the University of Notre Dame to report directly to the countywide Special Victims Unit (SVU) rather than to the university police. Cotter stated, “I would feel more comfortable if [Notre Dame police] were part of the Special Victims Unit. … I would rather have those cases investigated by the SVU.” Currently, although Notre Dame’s campus police notify the county SVU of sexual assaults, they investigate the alleged crime themselves.

Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne, in response to Cotter’s comments, stated in an email that “[l]ocally, St. Joseph’s County and the Indiana State Police have jurisdiction to investigate crimes, including sex crimes, anywhere in the county, including college campuses.” But according to the Chicago Tribune, “Browne said Monday the university has declined invitations to join the victims unit because the school can handle the investigations itself.” Notre Dame’s student handbook states: “If the incident occurred on Notre Dame property, NDSP [Notre Dame Security Police], a duly authorized police agency in the state of Indiana, is the appropriate agency with which to file a report.”

In recent years, Notre Dame has been criticized for its handling of complaints of sexual assault. Most notably, in August 2010, Elizabeth Seeberg, a student at St. Mary’s College, reported to NDSP that she was sexaully assaulted by a Notre Dame football player. On September 2, a friend of her alleged attacker sent her a text message saying, “Don’t do anything you would regret. Messing with [N]otre [D]ame football is a bad idea.” On September 10, Seeberg committed suicide. The South Bend Tribune reported that St. Joseph County police were unaware that the young woman had made a sexual assault allegation 10 days prior.

Tom Seeberg, Elizabeth’s father, said he believed the SVU would have done a better job of handling his daughter’s case. And Connie Adams, director of the Belles Against Violence Office at Saint Mary’s, said her group will now tell students who allege they were assaulted on Notre Dame’s campus that they can contact the SVU instead of or in addition to notifying Notre Dame campus police.

Complaints about how colleges handle sexual assault allegations come from all parties. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff stated in response to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault’s first report, released in April 2014:

No one is happy with the way campuses currently deal with sexual harassment, sexual violence, and rape—not victims, not the accused, not parents or loved ones, not administrators, not university counsel, not defense attorneys, not civil liberties advocates, and not the general public.

Furthermore, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one of the nation’s preeminent anti-sexual assault organizations, stated in its written comment to the Task Force:

[U]ntil we find a way to engage and partner with law enforcement, to bring these crimes out of the shadows of dorm rooms and administrators’ offices, and to treat them as the felonies that they are, we will not make the progress we hope.

Notre Dame seems to believe it has the specialized training, experience, and resources to adequately investigate claims of sexual assault without joining forces with the county’s SVU. However, former Notre Dame police investigator Pat Cottrell disagrees, arguing sexual assault allegations on campus should be investigated by the SVU.

The SVU includes detectives and prosecutorial staff who—unlike campus police and administrators—are specially trained, are experienced, and deal solely with sex crimes. The SVU also provides an advocate for complainants from the S-O-S of the Family Justice Center, which focuses specifically on victims of sexual and domestic violence.

FIRE hopes to see Notre Dame change its policies and take Cotter’s offer to participate fully with the SVU. A well trained investigative unit is far more capable than an educational institution of ensuring that justice is served in these cases.

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