Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a three-part series on issues surrounding sexual assault reporting and the need for reform.
On May 1, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) released a list of 55 colleges and universities that are currently under federal investigation for mismanagement of sexual assaults reported on their campuses. The list named public and private schools of all sizes, including Harvard, Princeton, the University of Virginia, Ohio State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Sarah Lawrence College. Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in the OCR’s accompanying press release that a school’s investigation is not indicative of a violation of any federal law.
One in five women is sexually assaulted in college, usually by someone that she knows.
The list was made public two days after the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault (“the Task Force”) released its first report (PDF) (“the Report”). President Barack Obama created the Task Force in January 2014 to combat high numbers of sexual assault on college campuses, a problem that he said affects more than just the victims. “Sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals,” he said. “It threatens our families, it threatens our communities; ultimately, it threatens the entire country.” The Task Force is headed by the Office of the Vice President and the White House Council on Women and Girls.
According to the Report, one in five women is sexually assaulted in college, usually by someone that she knows. Campus incidents often involve “incapacitated assaults,” which occur when the victim is drunk, drugged, unconscious, or otherwise incapable of giving consent. Victims may blame themselves or feel ashamed, leading many incidents to go unreported. It is believed that only 12% of sexual assaults on college campuses are reported to the police.
“Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone,” said President Barack Obama. “We have your back.”
The Task Force seeks to educate the public, empower survivors of sexual assault, and ensure schools comply with federal laws governing gender discrimination and mandatory reporting of campus crime. The Report offers guidelines to colleges and universities on best practices for preventing and handling sexual assaults, which include training school officials, drafting comprehensive misconduct policies, and specifically defining consent. The Task Force also created notalone.gov, a website designed to help both victims and school officials better handle incidents of assault.
Federal investigation of the 55 colleges and universities remains in the early stages, but its significance should not go unmentioned. The Task Force’s efforts evince a palpable shift in attitudes toward sexual assault, a rampant problem that has gone unaddressed on college campuses for many years: “Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone,” Obama said in January, upon creating the Task Force. “We have your back.”