Obama targets campus sexual assault

President launches task force on sex crimes at colleges alongside release of broader report on sexual violence in US

President Barack Obama signs a memorandum on Tuesday establishing the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Barack Obama on Wednesday issued a call to attack the glaring problem of sexual violence on U.S. college campuses, challenging his administration along with law enforcement officials, community leaders, college administrators and students to join a national effort to extinguish violence against women.

“You can judge a nation and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls," Obama said.

The president’s remarks came as a damning new White House report (PDF) said that nearly 1 in 5 college women are the victims of sexual assault, and that only 12 percent of victims report the incidents. The report, written by the White House Council on Women and Girls, was released in conjunction with the establishment of a new presidential task force that aims to combat rape on college campuses.

In announcing the report Wednesday, Obama called sexual assault “an affront to our basic decency and humanity.”

“And wherever it occurs — whether it’s in our neighborhoods or on our college campuses, our military bases or our tribal lands — it has to matter to all of us," he said.

You can judge a nation and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls.

President Barack Obama

The report mentioned a number of patterns involved in campus assaults, including:

  • The majority of sexual assault victims are well acquainted with their attackers prior to being assaulted.
  • There is a relatively high incidence of incapacitated assault, meaning the victims were drunk, on drugs or otherwise impaired at the time of the assaults.
  • As many as 63 percent of perpetrators are serial rapists, with an average of six assaults committed per person.

The new White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault set itself a 90-day target for submitting proposals and recommendations to the president.

The submissions will include an overview of protection measures currently in place on campuses around the country, an initiative to make federal enforcement guidelines clearer to colleges and students, and a drive to promote more coordination among federal government agencies to prevent campus sexual assault.

Current U.S. laws require schools that receive federal funding, and take part in federal financial aid programs, to report sexual violence and take measures against it.

The issue of sexual violence on college campuses drew national media attention last fall when Florida State student athlete Jameis Winston was accused of raping a fellow student and Florida authorities ultimately declined to press charges.

Curtailing sex crimes

Looking beyond college campuses, the White House report also focused on a number of shortcomings in the country’s efforts to curtail sex crimes.

Declaring that the criminal justice response to sexual assault in general is too often inadequate, the report set a goal of increasing arrest, prosecution and conviction rates. It did not set specific targets for rates of change.

The report said a lack of training led to law officers often being reluctant to investigate sex crimes — a situation that can lead to low arrest and prosecution rates. It said that the federal government should promote training and help police increase testing of DNA evidence collected from victims.

The report also said efforts were continuing to confront sexual assault in the military.

In August, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel introduced Pentagon guidelines to combat rape in the armed services. According to an assessment by the Pentagon released in November, reports of sexual assault in the military were up 46 percent in 2013, with 3,553 sexual-assault complaints from October 2012 through June 2013, compared with 2,434 over the same period a year earlier. 

In his remarks Wednesday, Obama — who has two daughters — said that while he hopes the United States can be a leader in instilling a culture of respect for women, national progress remains inadequate.

"We must — and can — continue to change our nation’s attitudes about these crimes," the report said. "Sexual assault is pervasive because our culture still allows it to persist."

With The Associated Press

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