On January 22, President Obama announced a new White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to tackle the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. In his East Room declaration, Obama said, “Sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals. It threatens our families, it threatens our communities; ultimately, it threatens the entire country.” The president praised an “inspiring wave of student activists” for calling attention to this issue and told women and men who have survived rape and sexual assault, “I’ve got your back.”
The task force was first mentioned in a report released in January by the White House Council on Women and Girls, called Rape and Sexual Assault: A Call to Action. Though that report looked at sexual assault in all settings, it did devote a good deal of time to college campuses, which are notorious both for the prevalence of sexual assault and the lack of response by schools. The report noted:
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The dynamics of college life appear to fuel the problem, as many victims are abused while they’re drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated. Most college victims are assaulted by someone they know—and parties are often the site of these crimes.
Schools must have policies in place so they can both prevent crimes and respond more effectively when rape does occur, the report said. It went on to note:
To accomplish these and other goals, the President today is establishing a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The task force will:
Provide educational institutions with best practices for preventing and responding to rape and sexual assault.
Build on the federal government’s enforcement efforts to ensure that educational institutions comply fully with their legal obligations.
Improve transparency of the government’s enforcement activities.
Increase the public’s awareness of an institution’s track record in addressing rape and sexual assault.
Enhance coordination among federal agencies to hold schools accountable if they do not confront sexual violence on their campuses.”
Not Alone goes into greater detail on each of these points. It suggests that all colleges conduct a campus climate survey, so administrators and students can understand the extent of the problem at their school. There is an accompanying tool kit for schools to use to determine not just how many students have experienced sexual assault, but the circumstances under which these assaults have taken place—did the survivor know her attacker, were they at a party, was alcohol involved, were there bystanders or witness? Additional questions ask how the sexual assault was handled after the fact and if students know the school’s policies and procedures for filing a report. The task force suggests that all colleges and universities conduct such a survey in the upcoming year, and it’s working with lawmakers to see if there is a way, legislatively, to compel schools to do so. The task force will also work with researchers at Rutgers University to evaluate the survey tool and revise it as necessary.
Once a school understands the problem, the task force believes it is important to take on three specific issues: preventing sexual assault, responding to it, and being open and transparent in discussing the realities on their own campus. For example, the report suggests involving men as allies in prevention and conducting bystander education programs to urge students to step in when they see anything that looks like it might not be consensual. It also suggests that all colleges need someone a survivor can talk to confidentially, a comprehensive sexual misconduct policy, improved disciplinary policies and adjudication procedures, and trauma-informed training for all staff who will be involved along the way.
The Obama administration seems committed to helping administrators implement
each of these steps; the report notes that the U.S. justice department, through both its Center for Campus Public Safety and its Office on Violence Against Women, is developing training programs for school officials, campus police, and local law enforcement that are based on research into how victims of trauma react and how to increase trust between survivors and law enforcement. The Department of Education is creating a similar program for campus health centers. The justice department is also looking to identify and publish best practices for adjudicating campus sexual assault cases, and the Department of Education has released new guidance urging schools to change their disciplinary process to forbid questions about survivor’s past sexual history with anyone but the perpetrator and prevent parties from being allowed to cross examine each other, among other things.
Finally, the task force wants more transparency about sexual assault on campus and has said it will work to increase enforcement to ensure schools are not attempting to sweep the problem under the rug. To that end, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will release “a 52-point guidance document that answers many frequently asked questions about a student’s rights, and a school’s obligations, under Title IX,” the report notes.
Among many other topics, the new guidance clarifies that Title IX protects all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, immigration status, or whether they have a disability. It also makes clear that students who report sexual violence have a right to expect their school to take steps to protect and support them, including while a school investigation is pending.
The issue of sexual assault on college campuses seems to be continually in the news as incidents are reported at schools across the country. In just the past week alone, there have been highly publicized cases at Amherst College, Brown University, and Vanderbilt University.
As Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement released with the report, “Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault. 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.”