Task force focuses on preventing, reacting to sexual assaults at colleges

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One in five women is sexually assaulted in college, usually during her freshman or sophomore year and in most cases by someone she knows. Most of the assaults go unreported.

But if the White House has its way, that will soon change as colleges and universities do more to prevent sexual assaults, provide confidential and effective services to those who are assaulted, survey students to find out the extent of the problem on their campuses and train bystanders to intercede.

The first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault was released Tuesday, and along with its recommendations came the launch of a website for victims called www.NotAlone.gov. The website provides links for victims to find crisis service in their area, to understand their rights under the law and to file a complaint about their school.

White House releases plan to curb campus sexual assaults

White House releases plan to curb campus sexual assaults

The website "indicates we are here to tell sexual assault survivors that they are not alone. And we're also here to help schools live up to their obligation to protect students from sexual violence," the task force report said.

"It's been over 40 years that those of us doing this work have known this is a problem, and there hasn't been a comprehensive program to address it, and now there is," said Delilah Rumburg, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, based in Harrisburg.

Ms. Rumburg attended Vice President Joe Biden's presentation of the task force report at the White House Tuesday. She said the room was filled with university presidents, members of Congress, advocacy groups and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The task force will provide schools with a toolkit for developing and conducting campus climate surveys to get an accurate assessment of sexual assault on campus and students awareness and attitudes about it. It calls on colleges and universities to voluntarily conduct the survey next year and says it will explore legislative or administrative options to require colleges to conduct the survey in 2016.

The report said only 2 percent of "incapacitated sexual assault survivors" and 13 percent of forcible rape survivors report their assaults to campus or local police. The reasons include fear of reprisal, worry about how they will be treated by authorities, a lack of knowledge about how to report or because they don't consider what happened to be rape.

"If you can create the kind of campus environment where students feel comfortable to report it and recognize they are not at fault and they work through those matters, I think it makes sense for us as an institution to take this on," said Joseph DiChristina, dean of students at Allegheny College in Meadville.

Mr. DiChristina, along with other university officials, mentioned something the report did not -- the fact that alcohol is frequently involved in campus sexual assaults.

"In 60 percent of the cases that involve sexual assault, there is going to be some amount of alcohol involved in that," Mr. DiChristina said. "We need to figure out how do you add that to the conversation on sexual assault and the significant behaviors we need to change. There's definitely an interplay between sexual behavior and alcohol on the part of the perpetrator."

The task force was created Jan. 22 by President Barack Obama and formulated its plans and recommendations after a 90-day review period during which it heard from thousands of people via online and in-person sessions and written comments, according to a White House news release.

The report provides clarification from the Department of Education that on-campus counselors and advocates can speak with a victim in confidence, while others on campus are required to report sexual assaults. It directs campuses to be clear about which employees are mandatory reporters and which are confidential counselors.

As part of the task force efforts, the Justice Department will develop trauma-informed training programs on sexual assault for school officials and campus and local law enforcement.

The recommendations come during the same month the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights confirmed it had started an investigation into Florida State University's handling of the investigation of rape allegations against Jameis Winston, the star quarterback of the university football team and Heisman Trophy winner.

And in January, just days after the formation of the task force, the OCR announced it was investigating whether Penn State University's handling of sexual violence committed by students or staff is in compliance with federal law. The investigation was prompted by a dramatic increase -- from four to 56 -- in the number of forcible sexual offenses report on campus between 2010 and 2012 in the Clery Act data.

Under the 1972 federal Title IX laws, colleges and universities that receive federal funds are required to investigate sexual assault reports and provide a procedure to resolve the reports. Failure to do so could result in a loss of federal funds.

"The new guidance from the White House Task Force is welcomed evidence of a growing national commitment to these important concerns. We have yet to completely review the guidelines, but we are confident they express a purpose and commitment Penn State shares," said Damon Sims, Penn State's vice president for student affairs said of the task force report.

Ken Service, vice chancellor for communications at the University of Pittsburgh, said Pitt is "in total accord with the overriding message of the president's report that no woman should have to fear sexual assault while pursuing her university education." Mr. Service said Pitt has a number of programs to enhance campus safety but will "be reviewing ways in which we can be a part of the national dialogue to continue to work toward solutions, clarity, and better coordination on this issue."

David Fryson, chief diversity officer at West Virginia University, said WVU "welcomes the White House initiative on this very serious issue" and will be reviewing the task force recommendations for was to "increase our efforts to combat and prevent sexual assaults."

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published April 29, 2014 12:02 PM

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