WASHINGTON— The Obama administration on Monday announced a series of steps it plans to take to try to reduce the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, including pushing colleges and universities to become more transparent in their reporting of incidents.
Vice President Biden will formally unveil the report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault on Tuesday. The report details plans to launch the web site called NotAlone.gov – where enforcement data will be published — as well as an effort to require colleges and universities to conduct anonymous surveys of their student bodies by 2016 to get a better understanding of how frequently incidents happen on campus.
The White House is also calling on colleges and universities to voluntarily conduct surveys in 2015 and says it will explore legislative or administrative options to make it mandatory for schools to begin conducting the surveys in 2016.
"Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault," Biden said. "No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn't exist. We need to give victims the support they need – like a confidential place to go – and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice."
In addition, the Department of Education will provide schools with new guidance that clarifies that on-campus counselors — such as those who work or volunteer at sexual assault centers and pastoral counselors — can talk to victims of assault in confidence. The confidentiality issue has become an issue on some campuses in recent years, with some schools saying counselors and advocates cannot always maintain confidentiality.
The task force is also providing schools with a checklist to use to draft or reevaluate their own sexual misconduct policies, and it announced that the Justice Department will later this year develop trauma-informed training programs for school officials and campus and local law enforcement.
The White House's announcement comes a little more than a week after a bipartisan group of seven senators called on the Obama administration to embrace a trio of reforms -- including conducting annual, anonymous surveys about sexual violence on campus; designating one person to oversee national policy governing rape, sexual misconduct and harassment in higher education; and bolstering disclosure of federal investigations into college for alleged mishandling of sexual violence on campus.
The lawmakers' push — unveiled in a letter to the task force -- was spearheaded by Sen.Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and was also signed by Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Mazie Horono, D-Hawaii, and Patty Murray, D-Wash.
In addition, Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., are seeking information from schools to assess how they are complying with current laws and may propose stronger ones. McCaskill plans to hold at least one hearing on the issue after collecting the surveys and meeting with stakeholders. Both Gillibrand and McCaskill are expected to attend Tuesday's event at the White House with Biden.
The issue of sexual assault has long been a scourge on college campuses. Nearly one in five women and one in 16 men are victims of an attempted or completed rape while in college, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice.
Under the 1972 federal Title IX laws, sexual harassment and violence are considered forms of sex discrimination. The law requires colleges and universities that receive federal funds to investigate claims of sexual assault and provide a timely and impartial grievance procedure to resolve those claims. Non-compliance with the law can result in the department revoking federal funding, although that has never happened.
The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) counts 53 pending cases involving allegations against colleges and universities for mishandling of sexual assault cases on campuses.
Earlier this month, the OCR confirmed it had opened an investigation of Florida State University into whether its handling of allegations made by a student that she was assaulted by the school's star quarterback, Jameis Winston, violated Title IX laws.
The student alleged she was assaulted by Winston on Dec. 7, 2012. Florida State officials met with Winston in late January to discuss the alleged assault. According to an attorney for the woman, the school dropped its investigation, at least in part, because Winston refused to cooperate with questioning.
In an attempt to comply with Title IX, the school may have further violated the law. Both a lengthy delay in conducting the investigation and a meeting only with Winston contradict guidance given to schools in 2011 by the OCR. No criminal charges were filed against Winston.
On Tuesday, OCR will release a 52-point guidance document on students' rights and schools' obligations under Title IX.
The task force also said that OCR will improve its enforcement procedures by instituting time limits on negotiating voluntary resolution agreements and making clear that schools should provide survivors of assaults interim relief, such as changing college-provided housing or class schedules, before the outcome of an investigation.