White House Task Force on Sexual Assault Better Late than Never

Editorial Board

Yale, Dartmouth, Florida State, Brown. It seems that almost every week, there is a new story about a college mismanaging reports of sexual assault on its campus. Amid anger and frustration with the lack of support and justice for survivors, the Obama administration announced guidelines on Monday that are intended to push college administrators to adopt changes to their process for dealing with issues of sexual assault.

The guidelines, which were part of the first report issued by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, founded in January of this year, include ensuring that reports of sexual assault remain confidential, implementing a variety of anti-sexual assault policies, such as bystander intervention, that have been proven to be effective at other schools, and conducting anonymous surveys about sexual assault cases. Additionally, the White House will also ask Congress to pass measures enforcing the guidelines, and to fine colleges that don’t implement them. The administration is also working to launch the website NotAlone.gov, which will “tell sexual assault survivors that they are not alone,” provide them with additional information and outline guidelines and resources specifically for schools and students.

In spite of the dialogue that college students and activists have been engaged in for years now, this is the first major campaign from Capitol Hill designed to combat sexual assault. A recent New York Times article cites a number of factors contributing to Washington’s sudden attention to this issue, including lawsuits, student activism and the Obama administration’s increased focus on civil rights.

Prior to the creation of this task force, the Obama administration had worked on combating sexual violence on college campuses by collaborating with Congress to ensure that, when reauthorized, the Violence Against Women Act would include legislation about “institutional disciplinary procedures” and mandated training for college employees and students on how to prevent and deal with sexual assault. Additionally, on Thursday the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a list of 55 colleges and universities currently under investigation by the federal government for failing to follow appropriate steps in reporting and handling cases of sexual assault, which violates Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. These are unprecedented steps from Washington, but our applause is muffled by the dragging feet of local, state and federal leaders who have ignored the importance of sexual assault legislation and enforcement since the women’s liberation movement brought the issue to national attention decades ago.

Still, many of these guidelines are a good first step. In an interview with The New York Times, Democratic Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand said the recommendation for mandatory sexual assault surveys “has been consistently the number one request of student survivors and advocates.”

However, the recent attention on combating sexual violence on college campuses is just that — a first step. For this campaign to render any serious results, a sustained effort from the White House is essential. We’ve acknowledged the widespread nature of the problem; now, we need to devise concrete measures to combat its prevalence. It’s still much harder than it should be for victims to come forward due to the stigma associated with sexual assault and the frequent focus on their personal lives, not to mention a culture of victim blaming. College administrations, by and large, aren’t doing much to create a safe environment conducive to the filing of reports. We would like to see targeted training of school officials who deal with judicial matters, specifically addressing hostility toward survivors. Additionally, more capable facilitation of the judicial process itself is necessary so that survivors are able to navigate it effectively. Too often, cases get dragged out between academic breaks and endless reschedulings.

The burden extends beyond administrators as well, since there is (and should be) a limit to their powers as disciplinarians. While school officials can and should expel student offenders, police need to make these cases a priority. As we have seen at Florida State and in other cases that have heavily involved law enforcement, the police’s fumbling are equally troubling. Public and private agents must work together to ensure that these sensitive investigations do not fall by the wayside and that survivors’ cases are handled justly.