White House outlines efforts to combat campus sexual assault

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 29, 2014 

— The Obama administration on Tuesday unveiled a celebrity public service announcement, a new website - NotAlone.gov - and a series of recommendations aimed at lowering the alarming rate of sexual assaults on college campuses.

The action came as Vice President Joe Biden said officials at colleges and universities, even if they fear their schools’ reputations may be damaged, “can no longer turn a blind eye and pretend rape and sexual assault don’t occur on their campuses.”

“Colleges and universities need to face the fact of what exists on their campuses,” Biden said. “They need to step up to it.”

The first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault estimates that one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, most often in their freshman or sophomore years. In the majority of cases, it’s by someone the woman knows, and most often women don’t report what happened.

Biden, who was introduced by a woman who was assaulted at Harvard University, said only 13 percent of women attacked report the crime to their schools.

“They fear they’ll be shamed. They’re embarrassed,” he said. “Or scared they won’t be safe on campus with their attacker roaming around or maybe sitting in the same history class.”

The steps include identifying the scope of the problem on individual college campuses, helping prevent assaults, helping schools respond effectively and making the federal government’s enforcement efforts more transparent.

The recommendations were put forward after three months of 27 sessions with more than 2,000 people who made suggestions. The administration plans to hold more listening sessions and revise the report.

One theme from the sessions was that it was too hard for students who are victims of sexual crimes to find information about how to report them, said Tina Tchen, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

“We need to provide survivors with more support and we need to bring perpetrators to justice,” Biden said.

The website will make enforcement data public and make other resources accessible to students and schools. Students can learn about their rights, search enforcement data and read about how to file a complaint. It also will provide schools and advocates with federal guidance on legal obligations.

The site also features resources from outside the federal government, such as hotline numbers and mental health services locatable with a zip code. The Department of Education will release new guidance clarifying that on-campus counselors and advocates can talk to survivors in confidence.

Biden said the task force heard from too many schools that believed counselors could not maintain confidentiality. The administration also wants to bring men into the equation. It released public service announcements featuring President Barack Obama, Biden and actors Daniel Craig, Seth Meyers, Benicio Del Toro, Steve Carell and Dule Hill.

“We’ve got to send a message to men everywhere, you’ve got to be part of the solution,” Biden said. Women must give verbal consent, he said: “Everything else is rape and assault.”

The new public service announcements encourage men to speak up and step in if they see someone in danger of being sexually assaulted.

“If I saw it happening, I’d never blame her. I’d help her,” Craig says in the spot.

Biden called on schools to conduct a campus climate survey to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault and student awareness of the problem. The administration plans to make the campus climate surveys mandatory in 2016.

The administration also will provide training for school officials who are involved in investigating and adjudicating sexual assault cases.

“It’s great to see the White House really putting a lot of effort into this issue,” said Andrea Pino, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student who, with former UNC student Annie Clark, were among those who filed a complaint about the handling of sexual assault cases against their university.

A separate complaint accused the university of noncompliance with the federal Clery Act, which requires universities that receive federal aid to collect and disclose information about crime that occurs on and near campus.

The cases are under federal investigation.

Pino and Clark also helped found a national advocacy network.

“It’s inspiring to see advocates here of different generations and seeing unity on this issue,” Pino said. “There’s a lot more to do. This is a first step.”

Clark said the policies aren’t “exactly where we want them yet.” Advocates will continue to work with the federal government, she said. One major problem is that the Department of Education doesn’t have the funding and staffing to handle the complaints it’s receiving and isn’t enforcing the law, she said.

A task force at UNC-Chapel Hill has been meeting for more than a year to rewrite the university’s sexual assault and harassment policies. The group has hashed out the structure of the adjudication process along with sanctions and grounds for appeal. Recommendations to Chancellor Carol Folt are expected soon.

A university spokeswoman said Tuesday that UNC-CH commends the White House for “making this important issue a priority, and we share their passion for providing safer campuses for our students.”

Folt was one of about a dozen university leaders who attended the White House meeting on Tuesday. She also attended a listening session of the White House task force in February. North Carolina students also met with the group led by Biden, including a graduate student from UNC-CH and a student from North Carolina Central University.

The White House effort will elevate the issue “in a way that will get the attention of college campuses across the country,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has been championing efforts to combat sexual assaults and who attended the event.

“This is a complex and difficult problem,” said McCaskill, a former county prosecutor. “The more people who put their shoulder to this effort, the more progress we’re going to make.”

The campus climate surveys will show how students feel about their safety and whether they think rape cases are being handled appropriately.

McCaskill is working on a separate survey of 450 schools that will give a statistically valid sample of what all schools are doing to address the problem of campus rape. The 18-page surveys include questions about how colleges and universities report and investigate rapes and sexual assaults and what the institutions do to help victims of these crimes.

The surveys were sent out over the past few weeks. McCaskill said individual schools’ responses would be kept confidential to encourage candid responses. Data from the surveys showing the extent of campus sexual assault would be released after a series of meetings beginning in May, she said.

McCaskill also plans to work on a new law that clarifies existing laws and “makes it simpler for universities to do the right thing,” she said. She planned to hold hearings in the summer and get a draft of the bill prepared before the school year starts.

The report’s recommendations drew praise from across the aisle, as well. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., called it a “vital step forward” in efforts to keep students on college campuses safe.

“These recommendations will help victims navigate the reporting process, enhance transparency in federal enforcement efforts and help schools build community partnerships with organizations like rape crisis centers that provide critical services for victims,” Meehan said.

Jane Stancill of The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., contributed.

Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark. Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof.

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