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WHAT OTHERS SAY: College campuses must be assault-free zones

Thursday, May 1, 2014 | 3:06 p.m. CDT

The White House is putting some much-welcome muscle into a fight to help make college campuses safer for students in the wake of a series of highly publicized rapes.

Also engaged in the battle is U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a leader in the fight to reduce sexual assaults in the military. Ms. McCaskill recently launched a survey of 350 colleges and universities to learn how they handle rapes and sexual assaults on campuses.

Ms. McCaskill notes that military and university settings are similarly closed environments where people fear repercussions if they come forward with allegations of sexual violence.

Ms. McCaskill’s survey is specifically focused on how rapes and sexual assaults are reported and investigated and how students are notified about the services that are available to them. It was begun at the same time an independent counsel was studying the case of MU swimmer Sasha Menu Courey, who alleged she was sexually assaulted in 2010 and later committed suicide.

The independent report criticized the university for failing to act on information about the alleged assault and never notifying the campus’ Title IX coordinator. Title IX prohibits schools with federal funding from discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment and assault.

In the wake of the report, UM President Tim Wolfe issued stronger sexual assault reporting requirements for university employees.

The White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault says that one in five female college students has been assaulted but that just 12 percent of such attacks are reported.

In an effort to turn around those damning statistics, the Task Force released guidelines Monday that urge colleges to:

  • Conduct anonymous campus climate surveys to learn more about sexual assault cases on their campuses.
  • Adopt anti-assault policies and offer sexual assault training for school administrators.
  • Help schools respond effectively when a student reports an assault.
  • Better ensure that the reports of such crimes remain confidential.

In addition, the task force has set up a website, Notalone.gov, that will provide such resources to students as a list of their rights, information on how to file a complaint, details about enforcement data and where to find mental health services in their area. The website will also be used to track enforcement of the recommendations.

President Barack Obama formed the task force early this year, and his administration has indicated it is likely to ask Congress to pass measures that would enforce the recommendations and assess penalties for colleges that fail to do so.

Critics were looking for more action from the president’s administration on what is being called a crisis on college campuses and criticized the White House response as being too weak.

Actually, it’s a step in the right direction. Exposing the insularity on college campuses to the light of day is a way to keep sexual assaults from being hidden.

Like the military, where a variety of actions are underway to prevent and crack down on sexual assaults, university and college campuses generally operate without much public scrutiny. A cultural atmosphere based on male dominance plays a key role in sexual violence, and efforts to change that culture must be encouraged.

Letting students know that sexual violence will not be condoned, that victims will be protected if they come forward and that perpetrators will be punished to the fullest extent of the law are the only ways to change the existing culture.

Confidentiality plays a large role in whether students feel safe enough to report a sexual assault, so that is one area in which university leaders must beef up their efforts. Similarly, the White House task force found that many assault-prevention training efforts are not effective and recommended programs already underway on some campuses that train bystanders on how to intervene.

Colleges and universities and local law enforcement authorities have proven themselves largely unable to control sexual assaults on college campuses, which is why the federal government is stepping up its efforts.

Fines, the withholding of federal funds and other punitive measures against schools that fail to respond to the recommendations are reasonable efforts to ensure that they are not ignored.

The only thing students should fear about getting an education is what their grades will be. Sexual violence must not be a part of the college experience.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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