What’s Missing From the White House Plan to Stop Sexual Assault

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The White House is asking colleges to step up their game when it comes to responding to sexual violence on campus, but advocates say it’s not enough.

Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday unveiled a series of guidelines for schools to follow, including anonymous surveys of students to gauge rates of sexual assault and measures to make sure victims’ accusations remain confidential.

While the guidelines are welcome attention for a topic that for so long has been little discussed, advocacy groups say more needs to be done to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.

“It really depends on how the implementation plays out,” said Selena Shen, chair of the board for Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER).

Approaching the new guidelines with skepticism

Shen said it’s encouraging that sexual assault is on the White House’s radar at all, and that her organization is excited that the recommendations appear to be “prevention-focused.” But SAFER is approaching the new guidelines with some skepticism, she said.

Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for End Rape on Campus (EROC) and one of the lead complainants in a high-profile sexual assault case involving the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, called the announcement a “great first step in a very long process.”

EROC “definitely has some concerns with some of the recommendations,” though, she added. More emphasis should be placed on sanctions than on rehabilitation programs, she said. Right now, many perpetrators do not face suspension or expulsion for rape.

The delivery and implementation of the guidelines also leave something to be desired, Clark added.

A new website, NotAlone.gov, provides recommendations for schools and resources for victims in an easier-to-access format than the Education Department’s website. But the site places the onus for enforcement on the schools, which do not have to accept the recommendations.
“We have a structural problem with the Education Department and with how schools handle complaints,” she said. “We’ve got to fix both systems.”

Preventing more sexual assaults

Back in January, President Obama created a task force to look at the issue of campus sexual assault and what might be done to prevent it.

The task force concluded that one out of every five female college students have been assaulted but that only about 12 percent report the crime.

One reason for the lack of reporting is that the young women haven’t felt comfortable coming forward. From outright victim blaming to a sheer lack of resources to help them, schools have handled allegations in varying and not always adequate ways. There hasn’t always been a way to ensure confidentiality, for instance.

One of the tool victims have is Title IX, an education statute designed to end sex discrimination. It requires schools to discipline perpetrators if it’s likely sexual violence occurred and it prevents schools from retaliating against students filing claims. If schools fail to comply, they can lose federal funding.

However, the Education Department hasn’t pulled funding from a single school and has instead negotiated with the schools to address the problems, a move victims criticize.

Several other laws help monitor instances of sexual assault. The Clery Act requires schools to report crime statistics that happen on or near campus, and the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act requires that sexual assault and dating violence be included in crime statistics. But activists and some lawmakers say more needs to be done.

The recommendation that schools do surveys on sexual assault is a good one, activists say, but it takes congressional action to mandate a policy.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) plans to introduce a bill that would require annual surveys of sexual assault on campus, require disclosure of agreements between the Education Department and colleges, and increase funding for Title IX investigations, among other proposals.

A spokesman for Speier wrote in an email, “Her perspective is that they are good recommendations but only that and need to be made mandatory by an act of Congress.”

The Education Department has fined some schools, such as Yale University, for failing to disclose several sexual offenses. But the fine was nominal, just $165,000.

Gaining national attention

That the issue is gaining national attention now is no coincidence. A series of high-profile cases have brought to light just how badly the nation and its colleges are failing to combat sexual assault.

Yale has come under fire for allowing students found guilty of nonconsensual sex to remain on campus as students, and Dartmouth came under federal investigation for its handling of sexual assault complaints. A group of students just filed complaints against Columbia University for their handling of sexual assault on campus and several students at Harvard have criticized the school’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Swarthmore, the University of Southern California and the University of North Carolina have also been criticized.

“Clearly, it’s something we’ve been working on for over a decade and other organizations as well,” Shen said. “But it’s been gaining a lot of nationwide attention and a lot of really high-profile schools have been coming under fire for the things that they’re not doing.”

The vice president, who drafted the Violence Against Women Act, a piece of legislation aimed at preventing domestic violence, has been “very involved in women’s issues,” Shen said. Biden gave a heartfelt speech on Tuesday afternoon in which he said, “colleges and universities need to face the facts of what exists on their campuses.”

We need to get away from the idea that the woman can be at fault, he said. It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing, drinking, who she is, or where the rape happens.

“Rape is rape,” Biden said. “Don’t look away. Do something. Speak up. Stand up.”

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