Sexual assault has cruelly and routinely persisted on college campuses across the United States for far too long. It should not need to be said, but the lasting impact experiencing sexual assault has on a young person’s life is irrevocable. A system that fails to hold perpetrators accountable causes, in many ways, far more lasting damage—as it allows the cycle of violence to repeat. This repetition in turn enables a culture that reinforces the message that this is okay—as does complacency from lawmakers and higher education leaders.
Vice President Joe Biden has taken steps to break this cycle, having played a large role in elevating national dialogue around sexual assault during his time in the White House. Biden penned an open letter to higher education leaders last Thursday, writing, “Twenty-two years ago, approximately 1 in every 5 women in college experienced rape or sexual assault. Today, the number is the same. And for female transgender and bisexual students, it’s even worse: 1 in 4 transgender students experience sexual assault in college. For bisexual students, it’s 1 in 3.”
The White House has sent a clear message that sexual assault is absolutely intolerable.
The numbers are harrowing, particularly when considering the vast majority of sexual assault and rape incidents go unreported. But the way Biden and President Obama—particularly in the past four years—have given this epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses far more attention than any preceding administration in U.S. history actually is real progress. The White House has sent a clear message that sexual assault is absolutely intolerable. That spotlight—at the highest level—has been a watershed moment for an issue that has continued for far too long, which cannot and should not be discounted.
White House Task Force’s Final Summit, Second Report on Campus Sexual Assault
January 5 marked the administration’s final event battling sexual violence against students at the White House, the It’s On Us Summit. The event was named for the campaign the president and vice president launched in September 2014 to fundamentally shift the culture around sexual assault. Specifically, the It’s On Us movement centers around three pillars: that of consent education, increased bystander intervention, and fostering an environment that supports survivors of assault. Its creation followed the founding of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January 2014, which officially released its second report on Thursday (the first, “Not Alone,” was released in April 2014). The new report begins with an important dedication.
A huge debt of gratitude is owed to the numerous survivors of campus sexual assault who have made it their mission to become agents of change. Hundreds of young women and men have come forward to tell the Task Force about their experiences with the hope that their efforts may save another person from experiencing this life-altering crime. Their courage and tenacity, especially after enduring unspeakable trauma, have greatly inspired the Task Force and helped to guide and instruct us along the way. This report is dedicated to those survivors.
The report goes on to show the progress that has been made in the past few years by highlighting three case studies.
Combating Silos for a Shared Responsibility
A glaring problem with reporting sexual assault on college campuses that may deter many survivors from coming forward is the myriad of stakeholders often responsible for overseeing campus safety including institutional and local police forces, campus judicial boards, deans, and administrators. After Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago appointed a statewide Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Task Force in 2016, which includes presidents, campus police chiefs, Title IX coordinators, and student leaders and focuses on both gun and sexual violence, the task force released a report on recommendations to raise awareness on campus violence, address safety, collaborate across sectors, and share both best practices and trainings/resources for higher education administrators. Among its key findings is the importance of breaking down existing silos among law/safety enforcement, administrators, and institutional structures when confronting campus safety and violence. The report states, “Safety and security, to be effective, must be ‘owned’ by the entire community.”
Enhancing Campus Policing
Another issue institutions of higher education are often faced with is a lack of sexual assault training for those at the frontlines of campus safety, especially at night: campus police forces. Following the White House Task Force’s 2014 report and call to action, the University of Texas (UT) Austin School of Social Work’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault released the “Blueprint for Campus Police: Responding to Sexual Assault” in February of 2016. The Blueprint seeks to close gaps in knowledge and responses—particularly, it states, “related to the intersections of sexual assault with alcohol, underage drinking, binge drinking, [and] the hook-up culture” on college campuses. UT’s goal is for every campus safety officer across all fourteen UT campuses to undergo Blueprint training. But it has ultimately already served as a national resource, as well: UT estimated campus police at schools across the country have accessed the Blueprint online roughly one thousand times since its publication.
Conducting Case Specific Campus Climate Assessments
Though sexual assault on college campuses persists nationwide, institutions of higher education cannot necessarily implement “one size fits all” approaches in addressing the problem. This is why Rutgers University’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC)—which along with UT Austin (as well as Johns Hopkins University and the University of New Hampshire) was selected by the first Task Force report to pursue research on sexual assault— conducted a campus climate assessment on sexual assault specifically at Rutgers. They consequently released a “Lessons Learned” guide for colleges and universities to make such assessments of their own campuses and to respond accordingly. VAWC found student surveys to be of the utmost importance, stating that they gain “information that can only be gleaned from first-hand reports,” including “measurements of subjective characteristics, such as students’ opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and awareness of campus resources.” Critically, it notes, “Surveys may also yield more accurate estimates of the prevalence of sexual assault than statistics from law enforcement, as many victims of campus sexual assault may never report the incident(s) to the authorities.” The guide is thorough, taking care to note that such surveys should be weary of isolating any LGBTQ students by avoiding binary terminology and using appropriate language: for example, sex (“the biological set of characteristics defining males and females”) versus gender (“socially constructed and comprised of behaviors, activities, and attributes typically associated with men and women”).
Further Task Force Findings on the Path to Eliminating Sexual Assault
The White House Task Force report is also noteworthy in that it recommends education programs that are being implemented and successfully utilized on campuses nationwide, including evidence-based programs focusing around bystander intervention training and survivor empowerment such as Bringing in the Bystander and Green Dot. As a graduate of Connecticut College, I can attest to the efficacy of Green Dot in its encouragement of bystanding students to distract, delegate, or directly intervene in diffusing ominous situations from turning into instances of sexual assault.
The report also notes that when successful, such prevention, education, and training programs challenge biases and harmful attitudes, engage men and women, customize programming for different student groups such as athletic teams, and carefully consider needs of all populations—including LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, English Language Learner (ELL) students, students of color, and others.
The continuation of this work is the best hope the United States can have for eliminating the culture that allows sexual assault to persist, particularly on college campuses.
Finally, the Task Force report recommends that colleges and universities—if they have not already—develop comprehensive sexual misconduct policies. The grievance processes of these policies should: utilize the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard (in which the misconduct was more likely to have occurred than not); impose a range of sanctions; and employ timely methods of communication with both complainants and respondents in accordance with Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Also on Thursday, the Task Force published a guide specifically geared toward university and college presidents and senior administrators to put these recommendations into action.
Ultimately, the continuation of the work the Task Force and many institutions of higher education have begun in response to Department of Education guidance is the best hope the United States can have for eliminating the culture that allows sexual assault to persist, particularly on college campuses. The Task Force provides a platform through which leaders and stakeholders can share challenges and successes. This resource is all the more important for institutions that many not have the resources to undertake expensive empirical studies—guides like the Rutgers “Lessons Learned” report and the UT Blueprint give anyone with Internet access a starting point for assessing the sexual assault climate specifically pertaining to their own campus, and the guidance for how to adequately respond.
Will Progress Slow under Trump?
Despite all the commendable progress that has been made by higher education stakeholders with regard to protecting students from sexual assault, there is a distinct possibility the 2011 Dear Colleague letter from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education could be rescinded due to years of opposition from numerous Republican lawmakers. This letter is critically important because it was the first time that schools nationwide were told to use the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard—which has been a policy at the Office for Civil Rights since at least 1995—that the Department of Education states school officials must abide by when determining the guilt of an accused attacker.
For this reason, on the same day as the It’s On Us Summit, Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA)—who are also also sponsors of the Campus SaVE Act—sent a letter to President-elect Trump, urging him not to roll back federal Title IX regulations on campus sexual assault.
They wrote, “The important guidance to institutions of higher education has been instrumental in providing these schools with the tools they need to address the scourge of campus sexual assault.”
The Trump transition team has yet to respond to the letter. During his 2016 campaign, multiple sexual assault allegations were made against the president-elect.
But as Vice President Biden remarked Thursday, “I’m working very hard with this incoming administration to convince them that this is, in a sense, the civil rights issue of our time. It’s the human rights issue of our time.”
Coming off the heels of an election cycle that has only affirmed what so many survivors know too well about rape culture, this kind of commitment demonstrated by advocates including Biden, the Task Force, and many higher education leaders is all the more pivotal.
Cover Photo: Facebook, It’s On Us Campaign.