The White House is urging colleges and universities to take a more proactive approach to protecting students from sexual assault and recently announced new actions and guidelines in the first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
The task force is one of several recent initiatives designed to enforce federal laws requiring institutions to develop and implement sexual violence awareness and prevention programs. Last year, Congress passed The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE Act) containing new requirements for policies and procedures for handling sexual misconduct on campus. Institutions must implement the SaVE Act for the 2014-2015 academic year.
The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was created in January 2014 in response to a significant increase in student complaints under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and more vocal criticism from activists and rape survivors of the way colleges and universities respond to reports of sexual assault.
The initial recommendations in the report were developed after the task force conducted 27“listening sessions” with students, victims, alumni, administrators, law-enforcement officials and campus professionals, among others.
The report makes the following recommendations and offers best practices for keeping students safe:
Campus Climate Survey
The report recommends schools start by identifying the problem through a "campus climate" survey to measure the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, examine students' attitudes and awareness about the issue and provide input on what types of solutions are needed at the school. The report includes a toolkit containing a guide with methods of conducting an effective survey and a set of evidence-based sample questions to help acquire useful answers. The task force called on schools to voluntarily conduct the survey over the next year but will explore a legislative or administrative mandate for such surveys to be completed by 2016.
Preventing Sexual Assault on Campus
The task force points to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlining the results of its review of prevention strategies for reducing sexual violence. The CDC's report summarizes some of the best available research on the issue, reviews the effectiveness of various prevention strategies and highlights steps schools can take to prevent sexual assault on campus.
The task force also recommends that schools promote "bystander intervention" to encourage witnesses to step in when misconduct arises. Part of this strategy entails changing social perspectives of rape and enlisting men as allies against sexual assault. To this end, the task force has release a Public Service Announcement featuring President Obama, Vice President Biden and celebrity actors, as well as a basic factsheet identifying key aspects of effective programs and various ways to promote bystander intervention.
Colleges and universities are also advised to review their policies to ensure they provide:
Trained victim advocates for emergency and ongoing support;
Disciplinary processes that abide by the new policy guidance issued by the Department of Education; and
More options for victims to speak confidentially with certain campus officials.
Enhanced Transparency and Coordination of Federal Enforcement Efforts
The task force review found systemic problems with federal enforcement of civil-rights laws stemming from a lack of coordination among federal authorities and a lack of transparency in their actions. Accordingly, the Departments of Education and Justice have formally agreed to work together more closely to enforce Title IX and take a much harder line in holding colleges and universities to higher standards under the law. Finally, the government will also make enforcement data and other information on sexual assault available on NotAlone.gov to provide students with a clear explanation of their rights and resources available to them.
Colleges and universities that participate in the federal student financial aid programs are already legally required to respond to reports of sexual assault under Title IX and must report crime statistics and information about campus crime prevention programs and policies under the Clery Act. The administration's new commitment to enforcing these laws makes it more important than ever for college and universities to review their applicable policies and training programs to ensure all relevant campus parties understand their respective responsibilities.