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White House releases proposals on campus sexual assault

Government calls for better sexual-violence prevention and education programs; creates NotAlone.gov website

The White House task force dedicated to addressing the problem of sexual violence on college campuses released its recommendations on Tuesday, as college students across the U.S. continue to file increasing numbers of federal complaints alleging that their sexual assault cases were mishandled.

College students who have been sexually assaulted have often been forced to deal with an inadequate system that “assaults them again,” Vice President Joe Biden, who chairs the task force, said in a speech following the report's release.

In addition to the task force recommendations, the federal government also launched a website, NotAlone.gov, where students can find resources related to sexual assault, including how to file federal complaints with the Department of Education and search for statistics about sexual violence at their particular schools, senior Obama administration officials told reporters Monday.

Among the task force’s recommendations are guidelines on improved tools for reporting sexual violence on college campuses as well as better prevention and education programs, including what’s known as bystander intervention, in which students are taught to speak up and get involved if they witness sexual violence.

In addition, the report asks colleges to voluntarily administer anonymous “climate” surveys to students about their attitudes and experiences with on-campus sexual violence in order to gauge each school’s needs, before making the surveys mandatory in 2016, senior administration officials said.

The report said that colleges would be provided with a checklist to use in drafting proper sexual misconduct policies. Among other things, the checklist includes ideas a school might consider in deciding what constitutes consent to sexual activity. 

Biden addressed the issue of consent in his speech, saying that a lack of verbal consent constitutes rape or sexual assault. He said sexual assault is when students aren't able to give verbal consent, for instance if they're incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs.

"Until we as a society acknowledge that and men begin to step up to their responsibility, this will not be solved," Biden said. 

The task force was launched on Jan. 22 in response to an increasing number of high profile complaints regarding sexual assaults on college campuses. The White House Council on Women and Girls reported (PDF) the staggering fact that nearly 1 in 5 college women is sexually assaulted by the time she graduates, with just 12 percent of them reporting the assaults — a much lower rate than the estimated 40 percent of assaults that are reported by the general population, according to the Department of Justice.

In addition, students from a number of colleges and universities — including Dartmouth College, Columbia University, Harvard College, Occidental College, Swarthmore College, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California — have filed complaints in the last year that their schools violated the Clery Act and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act by mishandling their sexual assault cases.

A need for transparency

A consistent grievance from college students who said their schools mishandled their sexual assault cases is that they were discouraged from formally reporting the assaults.

Colleges and universities that receive federal funding are required by law to report statistics about crime on their campuses each year under the Jeanne Clery Act, named after a Lehigh University student who was raped and killed in 1986. But a 2009 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that some colleges were underreporting their sexual assault statistics by using certain loopholes, such as leaving out reports from counselors covered by confidentiality protections. The investigation also found that some schools’ confusion about the definition of sexual assault kept them from reporting some incidents.

In addition, Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in any school or school activity that receives federal funds, may be applied to sexual assault in certain cases. The Department of Education in 2011 sent a guidance letter to all institutions, instructing them that “sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.”

But the Department of Education has never punished a school by withdrawing federal funds in connection to sexual assault. The number of Title IX complaints filed in relation to sexual violence at the college level rose to 30 in the 2012–13 academic year, up from 11 complaints during the 2008–09 academic year, the department told Al Jazeera in an email.

Sexual assault prevention activists have lauded the White House task force for paying attention to sexual violence on campuses — hopefully, they said, compelling the schools to improve transparency and their violence protection programs.

“The value of this report is in its ability to drive concrete change and action within the higher education community,” Meredith Ritchie, communications manager at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual-violence advocacy organization, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement before the report was released. “Colleges and universities are now aware that the White House and Department of Education are paying close attention. It is up to them to respond and act.”

But some worry that the government’s new website, NotAlone.gov, with its trove of statistics about sexual assaults from each school, as well as the call for colleges to conduct anonymous surveys on sexual violence, might actually punish the schools that comply with the recommendations.

“I worry that people will misinterpret the higher numbers [of reported sexual assaults] and think that the school is worse off than other schools that are not participating in surveying their students on the true nature of rape and sexual assault,” Danielle Dirks, a sociology professor at Occidental College, told Al Jazeera.

Dirks, who also advises campus leaders about how to file such complaints against their schools as a member of the advocacy group End Rape on Campus, said that transparency about which schools are being investigated by the Department of Education for violating Title IX (the department doesn’t publicly release that information) will be an important first step.

Earlier in April, a group of senators, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called for more funding for the Department of Education to make sure colleges are in compliance with the law.

McCaskill has begun a congressional survey of 350 colleges to find out how effectively colleges enforce the Clery Act and Title IX as it relates to sexual assault.

Dirks told Al Jazeera, “Every school in America has a problem” with sexual assault. “It’s not about just bringing them to compliance but actually having supportive institutions where safety and well-being is truly at the forefront of their mission,” she said.

“We’re actually hoping [the Department of Education] will have resources available to complete these recommendations and have the tools and resources to really make schools do these reforms that are so desperately needed.”

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