By John Lauerman
LOS ANGELES —
A White House task force called for U.S. colleges to conduct mandatory surveys to reveal the frequency of sexual assault on their campuses and student attitudes toward such misconduct.
The Obama administration will provide colleges with sample questions and other materials to develop the surveys, according to a report released late Monday by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Officials will seek ways to require all colleges to conduct sexual-assault surveys by 2016, the report said.
College students across the country have formed campus groups and filed federal complaints, saying that their schools, law enforcement officials and government agencies aren't responding effectively to sexual misconduct. Members of the task force, formed by President Barack Obama in January, met with more than 2,000 people to understand the problem and begin developing recommendations, senior administration officials said Monday in a teleconference with reporters.
"We are here to tell sexual-assault survivors that they are not alone," the task force said in the report. "And we're also here to help schools live up to their obligation to protect students from sexual violence."
One in five women will be sexually assaulted during her college years, and men are also sometimes victims of sexual aggression, according to the report. Still, the extent of the campus problem and how schools respond to it remains poorly understood, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and a former prosecutor, has begun surveying hundreds of schools on their policies and practices.
"Everybody needs to be all-in on this fight," McCaskill, who plans to hold hearings on campus sexual assault later this year, said in an e-mailed statement. "I look forward to working closely with the White House on legislation to better protect our students and ensure perpetrators aren't getting a free pass."
Dozens of schools have been hit with student complaints that their schools have violated Title IX, the law that bars gender discrimination in education, by failing to prevent and respond to campus sexual violence and harassment. The Education Department will provide new guidance to clarify its rules, and institute time limits for forming agreements with schools accused of violations, the task force said in the report.
Students need more information about how to protect themselves and whether their schools are under investigation for violations of Title IX, according to the report. The administration will create a new website, NotAlone.gov, that will provide such data and help students who have been assaulted find services, the task force said.
"We want to hold the Education Department accountable without harming investigations or risking the safety of students," said Annie Clark, a former University of North Carolina undergraduate who helped build a network of college students raising awareness and activism on sexual assault.
The administration also is issuing new guidance intended to give more options to students who want to seek services for sexual assault without filing a report that would trigger an investigation, the task force said. Many colleges have designated most or all of their personnel who respond to sexual assault as mandatory reporters, to ensure that victims' cases are dealt with.
Schools should ensure that there are some staff who assault victims can speak with confidentially and "make it clear, up front, who on campus can maintain a victim's confidence and who can't - so a victim can make informed decisions about where best to turn," the task force said.
It urged schools to use sexual-assault prevention programs that enlist bystanders, both men and women, to recognize situations where women may be vulnerable to sexual assault and personally intervene. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will be featured in public service announcements pointing out that having sex with someone who doesn't consent to it is a crime, the task force said.
"Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault," Biden said in a statement. "No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn't exist."
This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Education and Justice departments will form a panel of experts to identify more prevention practices, according to the report. The Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women also is funding the development of prevention programs, the report said.
The administration will provide a number of tools to help schools understand their obligations and promote proven techniques, the task force said. The Justice Department will develop a training program for campus investigators by September, and the Education Department will provide information for those dealing with traumatized assault victims by December, according to the report.