Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Seebergs Gain Ground: Thank God

By Roger A. Canaff, JD

Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeberg passed to the next life on September 10, 2010, a little more than a year ago. I did not know her. Readers of this space, however, know that I was profoundly touched by her life, her death, her courage, and finally the courage of her parents as 9/10/10, for them, bled brutally into the following fall and winter.

For the Seebergs, last fall was not a typical one for a Roman Catholic, Chicagoland family with multi-generational ties to Notre Dame du Lac and St. Mary’s. There was no warm delight in the football schedule, the changing of the seasons, or the approach of the holidays.  Instead it was a dark struggle in the wake of a nightmare with a suddenly impenetrable bureaucracy that was the Notre Dame administration. Since I and others have described them before, I won’t recount here the missteps I believe Notre Dame took, both with the investigation of Lizzy’s attack and with its interpretation of federal privacy laws. Suffice to say the Seebergs, already dealing with the worst nightmare any parent could face, were met largely with incompetence and then obstruction where her attack and death were concerned.
However, their resolve yielded some progress earlier this year when Notre Dame agreed to significant reforms in its response to sexual violence after an investigation by the Department of Education (DoE) in the wake of Lizzy’s death.

And beyond Notre Dame, hope also sprung forth in the form of DoE policy with the publication of an April, 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from Russlyn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.  The bottom line is that just about every U.S. public or private institute of higher learning relies on federal funding for various parts of its mission. The DoE Office of Civil Rights is empowered to condition receipt of federal dollars on meeting certain standards of protection for students at risk for discrimination. The office considers sexual harassment and assault to fall under that category.  The letter outlines several things colleges need to do in order to be in compliance with best practices where the response to sexual violence is concerned. Examples are things like preventing offenders from personally cross-examining victims in non-legal disciplinary hearings, and requiring a preponderance standard in determining the outcome. These things are hardly revolutionary or anti-due process.

Nevertheless, a backlash has arisen from various pundits who see these measures as some sort of perverse manifestation of political correctness that threatens to derail some precious and flowering aspect of adolescent college life.

One commentator, Sandy Hingston, unsurprisingly a romance novelist, tragically conflates the sexual exploration of adolescence with rape. She harkens back to what were apparently her and her counterparts’ own experiences of awkwardly waking up with boys in compromising situations and just not making a big deal of it. To the extent that such consensual liaisons happen, she’s correct- a big deal shouldn’t be made of it.

But here’s the rub: It isn’t.

Those awkward, fuzzy situations continue to occur every night in college life- more so now than then.  But they almost never produce complaints of rape, and nothing in the DoE’s guidance will change that. The fact is, most women and men who are clearly sexually violated in liquor-fueled, late-night encounters do not wake up and cry rape, let alone what victims of murkier situations do. The over-riding response to being violated sexually is to blame oneself and say nothing, and that will not quickly change. The DoE guidelines are simply helping to level the playing field in cases where the violation is clear enough, as in the case of Lizzy Seeberg, where an outcry is not only just, but necessary to the security of the campus and all of the students on it.

But this is lost on commentators who type with panicked fingers about how these changes will surely quell romance, stunt the college experience, and lead to the rounding up of men and permanent victim-hood of women.

Nonsense. This is argument in a bubble, utterly unschooled or unaware of how sexual violence actually occurs between people in the real world. Another commentator, Peter Berkowtiz, wonders aloud in the Wall Street Journal which campus leaders will come forward to challenge this new, frightening world order. Among others, he entreats literature professors to instruct that “particularly where erotic desire is involved, intentions can be obscure, passions conflicting, the heart murky and the soul divided.”

Really? So when a woman (or a man) is trembling in a strange bed, or stumbling, half-dressed from a backseat or a back room with the dawning horror of having been sexually assaulted, what she must first do is consider the divided and murky nature of her passionate soul?

Both commentators can be forgiven for naiveté, but neither have a clue what sexual violence really looks like.  The reality is, when complaints are made- or even contemplated- it’s almost never a close call.  It’s almost never a gray area.  Despite the musings of Mr. Berkowitz and others, sexual violence isn’t simply an unfair moniker for the complicated, erotic interplay of Rhett, Scarlett and a swollen, harvest moon in a sultry, starlit sky. It’s really much more banal, blunt, and evil than that. When it happens, and it does, it needs to be dealt with competently and fairly.

Competence and fairness. That’s what Lizzy Seeberg needed, and in large part what she was denied. That’s why her parents fight on, not for Lizzy now, but lovingly in her memory and valiantly for the millions of women they know will face what she faced. They could have been easily forgiven for shutting down and tuning out after the loss of the light in their lives, yet they are doing neither. Their angel is gone from this life, but they are not content with waiting to see her in the next. They are fighting to protect the angels of others who will wander onto campuses and into situations unmistakable in their criminality and deserving of a realistic, healing, and just response. The DoE’s efforts and its hard look at Notre Dame are a product of that fight. Both are welcome steps toward a better world.

A widely known child protection and anti-violence against women advocate, legal expert, author and public speaker, Roger Canaff has devoted his legal career to the eradication of violence against women and children.  Visit Roger's website:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Roger! I too have written about "the college experience." What do romance novelists and literature professors know about sexual violence? Is everything romanticized because it's Notre Dame...and that makes it alright? Ridiculous! Times have changed and awareness in most circles has heightened. "No big deal" applies to minutia, not to this topic. At least the DOE letter is a start. Let's get with the program and out of the dark ages for the sake of all young women!

    Donna R. Gore, M.A.


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