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Sexual Assault On America’s College Campuses: What’s Going On, What’s Being Done, And What You Can Do Help


This January, alarming rates of sexual assault on college campuses were recognized by the federal government as both “deeply troubling” and as requiring “a call to action.”

In a Presidential Memorandum, President Obama announced that specific national attention will be given to this issue by the creation of a new task force. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was inspired by a recent report by the White House Council on Women and Girls, which found that approximately 1 in 5 college women and 1 in 71 college men experience sexual assault, and that a shockingly small 12 percent of victims report sexual assaults on college campuses.

There are a number of reasons that the women who are attacked don’t report the crimes, but largely, they don’t report out of fear of their attacker and out of fear that they won’t be believed. They start blaming themselves, and from there, it can be hard to convince them otherwise — especially if people are unaware this even happened to their friend or sister or even girlfriend.

This is why Sexual Assault Awareness Month is so important. Even if you don’t know someone who has been sexually assaulted, chances are that someone actually has been, so it’s important to know the facts and help anyone and everyone who asks you for it. In the event that someone reaches out to you, it’s important to get the victims the help they need.

Although talking about sexual assault won’t solve the problem, it certainly gets us moving in the right direction. And people are listening. Just four days ago, Impact, the official student newspaper of the University of Nottingham in England, published an editorial entitled, “The U.S. is Talking About Rape Culture on Campuses. We Must Too.” Your voice is a powerful weapon, and our voices are being heard.

And many college campuses are responding. While new mandates will require colleges to take action, some are already stepping up and going beyond what they are required to do. While we’re still hearing troubling stories coming from college students — indicating that a lot of schools are still not doing their job of protecting students — there are signs that some schools are taking action to combat the issue.

Part of my job right now involves evaluating the quality and effectiveness of sexual assault prevention Quote-on-Rapeprograms on college campuses across the country. Just yesterday, I attended a screening session to evaluate several new online educational modules designed to provide college students with information on sexual assault, skills to identify it, and tips for intervening on behalf of victims. Most of the modules also include a social norms component, aimed at modifying rigid gender role norms and stereotypes, reducing victim-blaming attitudes, and encouraging positive norms on bystander behavior. To comply with new Title IX requirements, all colleges must select one of these programs, and starting in 2016, all incoming freshman must complete a sexual assault education program. Additionally, all university employees will be required to attend a training session to learn about the school’s policies on sexual assault and resources for victims.

Just last week, a U.S. Department of Education rule-making panel issued a proposal laying out new guidelines to improve sexual assault prevention and reporting practices on college campuses. The 15-member committee, made up of victim’s advocates, law enforcement, institutions, and other groups issued a draft of new campus safety rules that would implement the changes Congress made last year to the Clery Act as part of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The proposal adds domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking to the types of incidents that colleges must report and include in their annual crime statistics, and it also includes national origin and gender identity as two new categories of hate crimes that must be reported. Under the new rules, colleges would be required to report instances of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking even if the behavior isn’t considered a crime in the jurisdiction where they are located. In addition, the proposed regulation would require colleges to have ongoing programs and awareness campaigns aimed at preventing dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Those programs would need to be tailored to the culture and needs of the campus and student body, and must based on empirical evidence. The proposal also features new requirements on how colleges must conduct campus disciplinary proceedings that involve domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

Gail McLarnon, who represented the Education Department on the rule-making panel, said she expects to put the proposal out for public comment in the coming months and to meet the department’s November 1 deadline for publishing the final regulations.

Even Congress is joining the movement. On Friday, Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill released a joint bipartisan letter to the leadership of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education, asking for more funding to investigate and enforce sexual assault laws at colleges and universities.

“When our young people go on to higher education, it should be an opportunity to learn, grow, pursue their dreams and prepare for their future careers,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “But for one in five young women on campuses across America, the college experience becomes their worst nightmare, as victims of sexual assault.”

Speaking at Columbia University on Monday, Gillibrand pointed to a combination of under-funding and poor staff training at schools across the country and asked for $100 million in federal funding to boost enforcement of current laws.

college-sexual-assault-2“This is criminal behavior and the fact that our colleges and universities are not protecting their students is equally as egregious,” said the senator. ”People who are trained in sexual assault understand how to do these investigations and can begin to show a measure of accountability.”

Statistics show college campuses reported nearly 5,000 forcible sex offenses in 2012, meaning college women have a higher risk for sexual assault than their non-college peers, Gillibrand said. According to a recent White House report, only twelve percentof college sexual assault victims ever report the crime, largely out of fear of reprisal or harassment.

“America’s colleges and universities are the best in the world. But it is simply unacceptable that they become havens for rape and sexual assault,” said Gillibrand. “It is time to take this crisis head on and end the scourge of sexual assault on our college campuses, hold offenders accountable, and keep our students safe.”

Senator Gillibrand also hit back at those who minimize the seriousness of sexual assault among college students, implying that there are no ‘blurred lines’ when it comes to consent.

“These are not cases of dates gone badly, of a misunderstanding about whether she said yes or no, these are actually brutal crimes committed by recidivists and predators,” Gillibrand said.

Senator McCaskill, who cowrote the letter with Gillibrand, is also urging officials to take action on the issue, pushing Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to reveal how well their agencies are enforcing existing measures to ensure schools are handling sexual assaults on campus appropriately.

Last Tuesday, McCaskill sent letters to Duncan and Holder asking for a briefing. She requested that they provide her with detailed information on how the Education Department and Justice Department enforce the laws regulating how colleges handle sexual violence.

She asked for copies of any written guidance, information on all enforcement action since 1991, how many sexual assault cases are adjudicated by the universities as opposed to the criminal justice system and how many full-time employees each department has on the issue.

“I fear that, like the U.S. military, we’re going to find problems on college campuses just as systemic as our troops faced — including very low reporting due to lack of protections and resources,” McCaskill said in a statement. “No young man or woman should be left on their own after being victimized, and our schools must provide the highest level of responsiveness to ensure victims are empowered, and perpetrators are held accountable.”

McCaskill asked the Education Department for the number of schools that the department has cut off from federal student aid funding for inadequate sexual violence policies since such funding began in 1991; department officials have acknowledged the agency has never taken such action against a school.

The senator requested the briefing as soon as possible, but no later than April 11.

The letters come as the Education Department ramps up enforcement measures under the Obama administration, with a record number of students, faculty and alumni accusing their schools of failing victims of rape and harassment. President Barack Obama ordered a White House task force on college sexual assault in January, which is expected to make recommendations in the next couple of weeks.

A former sex crimes prosecutor, McCaskill recently led an effort to reform the U.S. military’s handling of sexual violence, a move that came in response to an estimated 26,000 assaults in 2012, with dismal prosecution rates.

Her military sexual assault legislation is currently held up in the House of Representatives, where it may not receive a vote this year despite clearing the Senate 97-0. McCaskill’s bill passed through the Senate after legislation from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to take prosecution of such cases out of the military’s hands failed to overcome a filibuster.

The senator’s office spent recent weeks in Missouri speaking with college officials about their process for handling sexual violence on campus. The University of Missouri is currently reviewing how it handles sexual violence after revelations that the state’s flagship campus had failed to investigate the reported rape of a student who later committed suicide. Police are currently reviewing the case.

The startling reports of mishandled cases and unreported rapes are not falling on deaf ears. College counselors and women’s advocacy groups are urging parents and students to pay attention to the statistics when choosing a school.

“Obviously, it’s something parents can look at and should look at,” said Sonia Ossorio with the National sexual-assault-is-everyones-problemOrganization for Women, referring to campus policies on sexual assault, reporting, and victim services.

College women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than anyone, which is definitely not a comforting statistic to hear. However, that’s why taking action is so crucial. Spread awareness through any activities you can, even if they aren’t organized events or official campaigns. Just talking about the issue and making people aware of its importance is a huge step towards ending the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. No one should feel like she is alone after the fact, and getting people to recognize that sexual assault is a bigger problem than the numbers can convey is a step in the right direction. Step up and help out this month, even if it’s just wearing the teal ribbon to show your support for victims.


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