April 29 (Bloomberg) -- A White House task force called for U.S. colleges to conduct mandatory surveys to reveal the frequency of sexual assault and student attitudes toward such misconduct to help stop violence on their campuses.
The Obama administration will provide colleges with sample questions and other materials to develop the surveys, according to a report released late yesterday by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Officials will seek ways to require all colleges to conduct the surveys by 2016, it said.
The task force introduced a broad package of measures to help colleges and their students both prevent sexual assaults and assist victims who have been harassed or raped. Members of the task force, formed by President Barack Obama in January, met with more than 2,000 people to understand the problem and begin developing recommendations, senior administration officials said yesterday in a teleconference with reporters.
“We all know that many of our schools just aren’t safe,” Vice President Joe Biden said today at a news conference in Washington. “We need to send a message to victims everywhere: we’re here for you, it’s not your fault, you’re not alone.”
College students across the country have formed campus groups and filed federal complaints, saying that their schools, law enforcement officials and government agencies aren’t responding effectively to sexual misconduct. Schools that fail to comply with federal regulations may be fined or lose eligibility receive government financial aid.
Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is under investigation over its handling of sexual assault among undergraduates, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights said yesterday. Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts, is risking the loss of federal funds after breaking an agreement to remedy violations of Title IX, the law that bars gender discrimination in education, the department said yesterday in a separate statement.
One in five women will be sexually assaulted during her college years, and men are also sometimes victims of sexual aggression, according to the report. The anonymous surveys proposed by the task force would counter colleges’ tendency to underreport assaults, said Nancy Cantalupo, an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law in Washington who has pushed for the surveys.
If the surveys reveal more assaults than a school officially reports, “then the public sees the disparity between the two,” Cantalupo said in a telephone interview. “That shifts the incentive on to the school to increase reporting by victims.”
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri and a former prosecutor, separately has begun surveying hundreds of schools on their policies and practices.
“Everybody needs to be all-in on this fight,” McCaskill, who plans to hold hearings on campus sexual assault later this year, said in an e-mailed statement. “I look forward to working closely with the White House on legislation to better protect our students and ensure perpetrators aren’t getting a free pass.”
Dozens of schools have been hit with student complaints that their schools have violated Title IX by failing to prevent and respond to campus sexual violence and harassment. The Education Department will provide new guidance to clarify its rules and institute time limits for forming agreements with schools accused of violations, the task force said in the report.
Students need more information about how to protect themselves and whether their schools are under investigation for violations of Title IX, the task force said. The administration will create a new website, NotAlone.gov, that will provide such data and help students who have been assaulted find services, it said.
“We want to hold the Education Department accountable without harming investigations or risking the safety of students,” said Annie Clark, a former University of North Carolina undergraduate who helped build a network of college students raising awareness and activism on sexual assault.
The administration also is issuing instructions intended to give more options to students who want to seek services for sexual assault without filing a report that would trigger an investigation, the task force said. Many colleges have designated most or all of their personnel who respond to sexual assault as mandatory reporters, to ensure that victims’ cases are dealt with.
Schools should ensure that there are some staff who assault victims can speak with confidentially and “make it clear, up front, who on campus can maintain a victim’s confidence and who can’t -- so a victim can make informed decisions about where best to turn,” the task force said.
It urged schools to use sexual-assault prevention programs that enlist bystanders, both men and women, to recognize situations where women may be vulnerable to sexual assault and personally intervene. Obama and Biden will be featured in public service announcements pointing out that having sex with someone who doesn’t consent to it is a crime, the task force said.
This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Education and Justice departments will form a panel of experts to identify more prevention practices, according to the report. The Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women also is funding the development of prevention programs, the report said.
The administration will provide tools to help schools understand their obligations and promote proven techniques, the task force said. The Justice Department will develop a training program for campus investigators by September, and the Education Department will provide information for those dealing with traumatized assault victims by December, according to the report.
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