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Task force recommends ways campuses can curb sexual assault

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 | 7:21 p.m. CDT; updated 5:37 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 30, 2014

COLUMBIA — A new White House report assures universities they do not have to combat campus sexual assault alone, the executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators said Tuesday.

Brett Sokolow is also the president and CEO of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group, which the University of Missouri System recently hired to evaluate sexual assault and mental health services on its four campuses.

"Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault" recommends:

  • Identifying the scope of the problem on college campuses by providing schools with a toolkit to conduct a campus climate survey to better understand the extent of the problem. Schools are urged to conduct the survey next year.
  • Preventing sexual assault and engaging men by identifying prevention strategies schools can undertake now and ways to empower men to step in when someone’s in trouble.
  • Effectively responding when a student is sexually assaulted by identifying who at the university a survivor can talk to in confidence, providing a checklist for schools to use in drafting or reevaluating their own sexual misconduct policies and trauma-informed training for school officials.
  • Increasing transparency and improving enforcement through a new website, notalone.gov, that will post enforcement actions and offer information to victims about how to seek local help and file a complaint.

Sokolow said the report's embrace of new investigative protocols was one of the most positive notes.

According to the task force report, some universities have adopted variations of the "single investigator" model, in which a trained investigator interviews the complainant and alleged perpetrator, gathers any physical evidence, interviews available witnesses — and then makes a determination based on the collected evidence.

Sokolow said this is a much less adversarial and more respectful process than the more traditional system, in which a college hearing or judicial board hears a case, makes a finding and decides a sanction. MU has this type of system.

Sokolow declined to say which recommendations the UM System could improve on, saying he would not comment until a UM task force completes its evaluations of sexual assault and mental health resources at UM campuses.

How the task force worked

The task force based its recommendations on a 90-day review that included in-person interviews and online meetings with victims, advocates and higher education representatives. 

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights also released a 52-point guidance document Tuesday that answers many frequently asked questions about a student’s rights, and a school’s obligations, under Title IX.

"Prevention and education programs vary widely, with many doing neither well," the task force report states. "And in all too many instances survivors of sexual violence are not at the heart of an institution's response: They often do not have a safe, confidential place to turn to after an assault, they haven't been told how the system works and they often believe it is working against them."

One in five women is sexually assaulted during her college years, according to a 2007 National Institute of Justice report, which is used by the Office for Civil Rights. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, in 2010 just 35 percent of sexual assaults were reported to the police.

UM System President Tim Wolfe participated in one of the listening sessions that the White House conducted to help prepare this report, along with some other university presidents, Feb. 26 at the White House, UM spokesman John Fougere said in an email.

"We appreciate the guidelines and recommendations that have resulted from the White House task force on sexual assault, which the University of Missouri System will utilize as another resource to help us improve the education, reporting and prevention of sexual assault on our four campuses," Wolfe said via email.

The report will help ensure the safety and security of all students, faculty and staff of UM campuses, Wolfe said.

MU's Title IX coordinator, Noel English, referred questions about MU and the report to Fougere.

Where report fits at UM, MU

Confusion regarding Title IX reporting surfaced after a report from ESPN’s "Outside the Lines" said MU acted inconsistently with university policy and the law in handling the sexual assault of former MU swimmer Sasha Menu Courey.

Menu Courey took her life in June 2011 after leaving the university. The ESPN report said three football players had allegedly raped her in 2010.

The UM System hired the Dowd Bennett law firm to conduct an independent investigation into the Menu Courey case in February. The firm said on April 11 that although MU didn’t violate the law, it failed to act on allegations that the swimmer had been raped.

Wolfe issued Executive Order 40 on April 8 that stated all system employees not bound by confidentiality are obligated to report sexual harassment and assault against students to each campus’ Title IX coordinator. Reporting responsibilities for MU employees under Title IX were unclear until Wolfe issued the executive order.

However, MU did not define which faculty and staff members were "responsible employees," and it still remains unclear what kind of training employees will receive.

In February, Wolfe created a task force comprised of representatives from the four system campuses to assess each university’s sexual assault and mental health resources in three phases.

Phase I, completed by the task force in March, was an inventory of each campus’ sexual assault and mental health services available for students to contact. The second phase is an evaluation of those services, which are being assessed by the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group, hired by the UM System on April 16.

The risk management firm’s analysis for the resources will be used to make the task force’s final recommendations in the first week of May — Phase III of the process.

More student awareness needed

Mason Schara, president of the Missouri Students Association, said he has been talking with administrators about issues such as sexual assault, mental health and alcohol consumption.

He said he is in the process of reviewing the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention, or RSVP, Center at MU to further emphasize its purpose and make sure students are aware of the resources on campus.

"Students on campus are not aware of what options there are," Schara said. "We are trying to increase transparency by making sure students are aware of these resources."

As president, Schara also said he is working with the MU Police Department to make sure students realize the police are a reliable resource to report incidents.

"They are approachable," he said. "They are not the enemy."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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