White House Makes Efforts To Combat Sexual Assaults On College Campuses

(PHOTO BY ALEX GARLAND) Demotix/Corbis
(PHOTO BY ALEX GARLAND) Demotix/Corbis

Growing concern over how rape and sexual assaults are handled in colleges and universities has lead President Obama to issue a Presidential Memorandum last month, establishing a specialized task force to investigate campus assaults.  

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault will be charged with sharing best practices and increasing transparency, enforcement, public awareness and intra-agency coordination to prevent violence and support survivors.

The proposal is similar to an earlier move made in December by State Assemblyman Edward Braunstein, who drafted a bill that would require universities to refer crimes of sexual orientation to the police within 24 hours.

“My staff and I have known this has been a problem for years–colleges and universities trying to handle crimes that happen by themselves rather than reporting it to authorities,” Braunstein said.

A report released by the White House Council called, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” claimed that nearly one in five women, and one in 71 men have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Other surveys have concluded that the rate of sexual assault against women could be higher than 75 percent.

“Not only do these incidents take a toll on students physically and emotionally, but they can also lead to related behaviors that hinder their abilities to perform well academically,” according to the report. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also a problem for surviving rape victims along with depression and drug and alcohol abuse, which White House officials believe is connected to higher dropout rates.

The York College Department of public safety has the general oversight of protecting lives and properties, but students on campus wonder if their policies are in sync with what’s required.

“It’s a redundant aspect because we already have that covered in the campus’ sexual harassment policy, workplace violence policy and title nine obligations that any crime we are required to report in an expedient and timely manner,” said Tyrone Forte, the director of York’s Public Safety department.

“The guidelines do not extend beyond campus property,” said Forte.  “Let’s say someone was raped by someone that they knew, that may not necessarily require timely notification to the campus community because it was domestic violence specific, whereas if this was a random act, then a timely notification would be warranted to go out because we don’t know who did this or what the circumstances were behind it.”

The measures taken by Assemblyman Braunstein and President Obama came as a result of the high profile cases involving minors such as the Penn State child sex abuse scandal that broke out in 2011 at Penn State University.  The former university football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted at least eight underage boys on or near university property, and university officials were allegedly covering up the assaults.

In 2012, the federal government issued a revised definition of rape which includes men, and better reflects the realities of sexual assault in the effort to improve the general understanding of where and how often the crime occurs.

In 2011, the Department of Education and Vice President Joe Biden announced an initiative to help schools understand their obligations to prevent and respond to campus sexual assault, as well as increase federal compliance and enforcement actions.

“Even now, it’s not always talked about enough,” said President Obama before signing the memorandum. “It can still go on in the shadows. But it affects every one of us.  Sexual assault is an affront to our basic decency and humanity. And for survivors, the awful pain can take years, even decades to heal. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime.”

President Obama signed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in March 2013. The revised legislation includes protections for LGBT, Native American, and immigrant victims who experience some of the highest rates of violence.

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