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White House Releases Plan to Curb Campus Sexual Assault

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama Ricardo B. Brazziell—American-Statesman/Getty Images

A task force convened by President Obama announced a proposal on Tuesday that includes recommendations for identifying the scope of the problem and helping respond to schools’ concerns about how best to comply with federal law under Title IX

The White House put pressure on the nation’s colleges and universities on Tuesday to improve their handling of campus sexual assaults, announcing new federal education efforts for students and administrators, new national guidelines of best practices for handling claims and a call for voluntary campus surveys to better understand the scope of the problem.

“Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault. No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement. “We need to give victims the support they need—like a confidential place to go—and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Over the past three months, a White House task force on campus assaults has held 27 listening sessions in person and online with more than 2,000 people, including survivors, parents’ groups, administrators and alumni associations to find ways to improve the hodgepodge of policies and practices at schools around the nation. The task force met in person with representatives from at least 50 schools ranging in size from fewer than 100 students to over 40,000 students, senior Administration officials said on a conference call to preview the recommendations with reporters Monday evening.

The task-force recommendations, which are purely advisory, are designed to help schools learn best practices for addressing sexual assault so they can comply with federal law. The task force, which laid out a series of deadlines in the report, will continue to hold listening sessions and help implement the recommendations.

The White House proposal has four parts. First, it provides a tool kit of recommendations for how schools can best conduct a climate survey that measures the number of victims, student attitudes and campus knowledge about how and when to report sexual violence. The task force is calling on schools to conduct surveys voluntarily next year. The Justice Department, with the help of Rutgers University’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children, will use the trial period to further refine the survey and the administration hopes to make the survey mandatory by 2016. Climate surveys are considered necessary because only around 12 percent of sexual assault victims in college report the crime to law enforcement.

Second, the recommendations include prevention strategies, evaluated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among the most promising, the CDC found, were bystander-awareness and intervention programs that encourage students to step in and stop sexual assault before it happens. The majority of campus men are not perpetrators, and according to the report, getting more men involved in prevention was a “constant refrain” in the task force’s conversation with stakeholders. To that end, the White House has also put out a public service announcement calling for men to intervene against violence and featuring sports stars like Jeremy Lin and David Beckham.

Third, the recommendations seek help schools respond when assault happens. For example, many schools have mandatory reporting requirements for faculty and staff, and the task force recommends providing confidential services to survivors through an entity like a sexual-assault resource center. The administration has provided a model confidentiality protocol for schools to follow and is providing schools with a sample agreement they can use to partner with local rape crisis centers if they are not equipped to offer 24-hour-a-day services.

Finally, the Administration moved to make its enforcement efforts more transparent. To start, the Administration has launched a new website, NotAlone.gov, that allows students to search enforcement data (like whether or not their school is involved in a resolution agreement with the federal government) and to find out how to file a Title IX complaint with the Departments of Education or Justice. By next year, the DOE will disseminate a list of Title XI coordinators–employees at schools designated to oversee Title XI compliance. To strengthen its enforcement efforts, the Department of Education is putting a 90-day limit on negotiations for their settlements with schools found in violation of Title IX and making it clear that schools should provide interim relief for victims, like changing class schedules.

The task-force recommendations are designed to help respond to schools’ concerns about how best to comply with federal law under Title IX. In April 2011 the Obama Administration sent a letter to colleges and universities reminding them of their obligations to adequately address sexual assault in order to comply with Title IX, a 1972 federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that receive federal funding. The letter prompted students at schools across the country, including private schools like Swarthmore and Yale and public universities like UNC Chapel Hill, to file Title IX complaints to the Department of Education, triggering investigations at a number of schools. In light of the cascade of complaints, the task-force report is meant to help schools figure out how to comply better with the law.

The task force’s goal of eventually making climate surveys mandatory is likely to create some controversy among schools. Colleges and universities subject to Title IX vary widely in their size and resources. W. Scott Lewis, a lawyer at the National Center for Higher Education, a firm focused on higher-education risk management, has cautioned that a “standardized climate survey could be a disaster,” because community colleges, private colleges and state schools are so different.

Administration officials, however, say they are sensitive to this problem and will use the next few months in the lead up to the potential requirement, to find out how best to create a survey that could be tailored to different schools. “We’ll get schools used to doing it, and then we’ll refine and evaluate,” said one senior Administration official on the call.

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