Sexual assault on campus: 'No more turning a blind eye' to it, Biden says (+video)

The first report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault was released Tuesday as the Obama administration increases pressure on colleges to better address the problem.

By , Staff writer

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    Vice President Joe Biden listens as Madeleine Smith recounts being raped while a student at Harvard University, during an event announcing the release of the First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, on April 29 in Washington. The White House is urging schools to provide victims of sexual assault with a confidential, respectful way to report the crimes and seek treatment.
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The White House is increasing its pressure on America’s colleges and universities to reduce the number of sexual assaults that take place on their campuses and improve the way they handle them.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration released the first report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, which was created in January, issuing guidance to schools on collecting data, establishing better prevention programs and responses to assaults, and announcing a new federal website that will be a clearinghouse of information and a public source of enforcement data. On the same day, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a new “questions and answers” document clarifying schools’ obligations under Title IX as it pertains to sexual violence. Title IX is a federal law prohibiting gender discrimination.

“Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement. “No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist. We need to give victims the support they need – like a confidential place to go – and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

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High-profile news about sexual assaults on college campuses – including at prestigious universities like Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown – has helped spawn a growing movement to hold colleges more accountable for sexual assaults and push them to be more proactive about preventing such assaults and changing their culture. According to the White House report, 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted while in college.  

The report Tuesday – one day after OCR found Tufts University in violation of Title IX for its handling of sexual assaults – is the latest in a series of signals that this administration is serious about pushing colleges to tackle the problem, says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women.

“We see this as kind of a game-changer,” Ms. Maatz says. “Especially when you couple the task force report and recommendations with the FAQ document that the Office for Civil Rights is releasing, what you have is a road map for how to better address college sexual assault.... This is a good day.”

The report highlights four key areas for action:

• Better reporting through campus climate surveys. Such anonymous surveys, say sexual assault experts, provide far more accurate estimates of the extent of the problem. The administration is providing schools with a tool kit for conducting them and is considering making them mandatory by 2016.

• Better prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a summary of the research on sexual assault prevention and evidence-based practices that work. The White House task force is encouraging schools to begin implementing these practices, to incorporate the best research, and, in particular, to use “bystander intervention” in their prevention efforts – one of the most promising practices that the CDC found. “When men think their peers don’t object to abusive behavior, they are much less likely to step in and help,” says the report, which encourages schools to “enlist men as allies.”  

• Better response to sexual assault when it occurs. The task force directs schools to provide “trained, confidential victim advocates” who understand the dynamics of sexual assault. It's also giving schools guidance on how to create a confidentiality and reporting policy, how to train school officials, how to improve investigative and disciplinary protocols, and how to better partner with community resources.

• More transparent federal enforcement. On Tuesday, the administration is launching a new website – www.notalone.gov – that will serve as a clearinghouse of resources, research, and data related to sexual assault on campus and that is intended to be a resource for both students and schools. It will also make all enforcement data public.

The website is “game-changing,” says Maatz, noting it’s the first time that the Department of Education will be collecting, and publishing, the names and contact information for the Title IX coordinators at each school – something that in the past was not given a great deal of attention. It will also serve as a repository for all sorts of information, including best practices, services for survivors, and enforcement activities. A college trying to come into compliance with OCR’s requirements could go there, for instance, to view voluntary agreements that the office has created with other colleges.

“It’s a really big deal – for students, for administrations, and for advocates,” Maatz says.

Maatz and others note that this administration has been signaling for some time that it intends to be far more proactive on the issue of campus sexual assault than the government has been in the past.

“For far too long, the incentives to prevent and respond to sexual violence have gone in the wrong direction at schools and on college campuses,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement. “As interpreted and enforced by the department, Title IX and other federal laws are changing these incentives to put an end to rape-permissive cultures and campus cultures that tolerate sexual assault.”

On Monday, OCR found Tufts University, located in Massachusetts, to be out of compliance with federal law on Title IX – an action stemming from a 2010 complaint about how Tufts handled a woman’s sexual assault allegations. The university, which disputes being out of compliance with Title IX, had signed an agreement with the government earlier this month, promising to take certain steps, but then backed out of the agreement.

“The facts of this investigation underscore the continuing imperative to address sexual assault and harassment on our nation’s campuses and to promote safe, secure environments for students,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department, in a statement. “OCR will take actions necessary to ensure that the agreement is fully and effectively implemented.”

The office could move to terminate federal funding for Tufts – a punishment that is possible under Title IX, but that the government has never implemented.

The outspokenness of student advocates, stronger enforcement at OCR, the vocal support of Mr. Biden and the White House, and the passage of Campus SaVE last year (an amendment to the Clery Act that gives additional rights to campus victims of sexual violence or stalking) have all combined to create what Maatz calls “a perfect storm” of efforts to reduce the problem.

“I think the smart universities will use this as an opportunity to be proactive,” she says.

College advocates for ending sexual assault, who have helped raise the issue in prominence over the past several years, welcomed the task force’s report, though they also say that the key to its effectiveness will be in the implementation.

“We think it’s very heartening and encouraging that this made it to the president’s desk,” says Selena Shen, board chair of Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER). She’s been encouraged, too, to see the attention that has come out of recent cases, as well as the administration’s willingness to take action, as it did with Tufts. In a recent study that SAFER conducted of 300 schools, she notes, about one-third were not in full compliance with current federal guidelines.

“No school has ever had their federal funding rescinded because of complaints or violations,” says Ms. Shen. “This is a step in the right direction, but implementation will be key.”

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