Obama targets campus rapes

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama shone a light Wednesday on a college sexual assault epidemic that is often shrouded in secrecy, with victims fearing stigma, police poorly trained to investigate and universities reluctant to disclose the violence.

A White House report highlights a stunning prevalence of rape on college campuses, with 1 in 5 female students assaulted, while only 1 in 8 student victims report it. "No one is more at risk of being raped or sexually assaulted than women at our nation's colleges and universities," said the report by the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Nearly 22 million American women and 1.6 million men have been raped in their lifetimes, according to the report. It chronicled the devastating effects, including depression, substance abuse and a wide range of physical ailments such as chronic pain and diabetes.

The report said campus sexual assaults are fueled by drinking and drug use that can incapacitate victims, often at student parties by someone they know. Perpetrators often are serial offenders. One study cited by the report found that 7 percent of college men admitted to attempting rape, and 63 percent of those men admitted to multiple offenses, averaging six rapes each.

Mr. Obama, who has overseen a military that has grappled with its own sexual assault crisis, spoke out against the crime as "an affront on our basic decency and humanity."

He then signed a memorandum creating a task force to respond to campus rapes. He said he was speaking out both as president and as a father of two daughters, and that men must express outrage to stop the crime.

"We need to encourage young people, men and women, to realize that sexual assault is simply unacceptable," the president said. "And they're going to have to summon the bravery to stand up and say so, especially when the social pressure to keep quiet or to go along can be very intense."

Mr. Obama gave the task force, comprised of administration officials, 90 days to come up with recommendations for colleges to prevent and respond to the crime, increase public awareness of each school's track record and enhance coordination among federal agencies to hold schools accountable if they don't confront the problem.

Records obtained by The Associated Press under the federal Freedom of Information Act illustrate a continuing problem for colleges in investigating crime. The documents include anonymous complaints sent to the U.S. Education Department, often alleging that universities haven't accurately reported on-campus crime or appropriately punished assailants as required under federal law.

A former Amherst College student, Angie Epifano, has accused the school of trivializing her report of being raped in a dorm room in 2011 by an acquaintance. She said school counselors questioned whether she was really raped, refused her request to change dorms, discouraged her from pressing charges and had police take her to a psychiatric ward. She withdrew from Amherst while her alleged attacker graduated.

Among the federal laws requiring colleges to address sexual assault are: Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in education; the renewed Violence Against Women Act, which was signed into law last year with new provisions on college sexual assault; and the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to publicly report their crime statistics every year.

The U.S. Department of Education posts crime data for post-secondary education on its website for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012. It notes that no independent verification is done for the crime data schools report. Regarding Western Pennsylvania campuses, the data show this:

Penn State University's main campus has reported an increase in forcible sexual offenses on campus from four in 2010 to 24 in 2011 to 56 in 2012. More locally, the McKeesport and New Kensington campuses reported zero forcible sexual assaults in those years, and the Beaver campus reported one in both 2010 and 2011.

Carnegie Mellon University also reported an increase of forcible sexual assaults over the three-year period, with one in 2010, five in 2011 and 15 in 2012.

The University of Pittsburgh's main campus reported seven forcible sexual offenses in 2010, four in 2011 and six in 2102.

Duquesne University reported two forcible sexual offenses on campus in both 2010 and 2011, and one in 2012.

Community College of Allegheny County reported no forcible sexual offenses at its South and Boyce campuses for the three years, but reported one each in 2010 at its Allegheny and North campuses.

Carlow, Chatham and Robert Morris reported no forcible sexual offenses from 2010-2012.

The Education Department has investigated and fined several schools for not accurately reporting crimes. Most notable was a 2006 case at Eastern Michigan University, in which the government eventually fined the school a then-record $357,000 for not revealing that a student had been sexually assaulted and murdered in her dorm room.

Violent crime can be underreported on college campuses, advocates say, because of a university's public-image incentive to keep figures low, or because crimes can occur off campus and instead be investigated by local police. Other times, schools put such suspects before a campus court whose proceedings are largely secret and not subjected to judicial review.

Students Active for Ending Rape, a nonprofit group that works with student activists to push for sexual assault policy changes on their campuses, said in a report last year that schools often do not fully address the problem. The report gave more than 80 percent of college policies a grade C or below, an F to nearly one-quarter, and said one-third of schools don't fully comply with the Clery Act.

The White House report also declares that the criminal justice response to sexual assault broadly is too often inadequate. It lays out a goal of increasing arrest, prosecution and conviction rates without any specific targets. The report blames police bias and a lack of training to investigate and prosecute sex crimes for low arrest rates and says the federal government should promote training and help police increase testing of DNA evidence collected from victims.

The report mentions military sexual assaults; Mr. Obama last month directed the Pentagon to better prevent and respond to the crime within its ranks or face further reforms. White House officials say they want to set the example by turning around the sexual assault problem in the military.

Post-Gazette staff writer Mary Niederberger contributed.

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