President Barack Obama took an unprecedented step to address rape on college campuses with the announcement Wednesday of a White House task force on sexual violence among students. The group will have 90 days to produce its guidelines, and those at the table will include Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder.
“I cannot recall a time when the government has marshaled these sorts of resources and taken a holistic approach to address sexual violence,” Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center said. “In many ways I think a short time frame will hopefully focus the mind and allow for some concrete approaches that can be implemented quickly.”
Creating policy prescriptions for the labyrinthine cultural issue of sexual violence won't be easy, and the government has not shown much appetite for confrontation with the deep-pocketed institutions—Yale, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, and the University of Virginia, to name just a few offenders—with a history of mishandling rape cases. But experts and women’s advocates suggested some meaningful reforms that could go on the administration's list.
For one, the task force could put pressure on schools where student complaints have prompted investigations from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights—sometimes repeatedly. The DOE does not publish a comprehensive list of these schools, the complaints filed against them, or the results of investigations on their campuses. Publicizing these facts “would allow some sort of consumer protection,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a co-founder of the student survivor campaign Know Your IX. “People should be able to make decisions about where to go to school with knowledge of whether there’s a sexual violence problem on campus, and that kid of voting with your feet would exert pressure on the school.”
Perhaps the most pressing problem is that schools' internal judicial proceedings can be confusing and off-putting for victims, who find themselves appealing to administrators with little understanding of the issue. The president’s task force could suggest better protocols; the administration circulated a letter with general guidance in 2011, but could and should go further, Brodsky said. The White House could also emphasize the occurrence of same-sex assault and the existence of male victims. “There’s an assumption of the default survivor who is a woman raped once by a man, and they’re probably both white, and they’re probably both straight,” Brodsky said, adding that friends who don't fit these categories have felt particularly thwarted by their universities.
A federal report released in conjunction with the task force announcement exposes this misconception. While one in five women in the U.S. is raped in her lifetime, so is one in 71 men, and race is a factor: “33.5 percent of multiracial women have been raped, as have 27 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women, compared to 15 percent of Hispanic, 22 percent of Black, and 19 percent of White women.”
Though Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments requires that schools have an effective procedure for handling sex-related complaints, many fall below compliance with that standard. An investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity summed up its findings:
Campus judicial proceedings were often confusing, shrouded in secrecy and marked by lengthy delays, leaving alleged victims feeling like they were victimized a second time. Those who reported sexual assault encountered a litany of institutional barriers that often led to dropped complaints. Even students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults often faced little punishment, while their victims’ lives frequently turned upside down. Many times, victims dropped out of school—or worse—while their alleged attackers graduated.
These tangled processes do not amount to compliance with Title IX, but in the past, the government has tacitly conveyed a lack of concern: Even after investigations that take years, the DOE rarely publicizes that it has found a school noncompliant, or imposes even a nominal fine. Hopefully, 90 days from now, Obama will deliver schools a sterner reminder.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Title IX.