On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a new set of guidelines detailing the responsibilities of colleges and universities to address the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.
The report coincided with the White House’s launch of NotAlone.gov, a website dedicated to providing straightforward information about and support for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses.
The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault also released its recommendations Tuesday concerning steps colleges and universities can take to address the issue.
“We know the majority of rapes are committed by a small number of perpetrators, and we know that both schools and law enforcement struggle to investigate and adjudicate these crimes,” Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said in a press conference.
Included in the task force reports were proposals that schools conduct “climate surveys” to evaluate the prevalence of sexual assaults on campus and test students’ awareness about the issue. The report also requests that colleges promote bystander intervention.
The task force plans to release a public service announcement to help encourage men to advocate sexual assault prevention. According to the report, the PSA will feature President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and celebrity actors.
Francesca Bessey, a junior majoring in international relations and a rape survivor, said the surveys could be helpful in debunking misconceptions of the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses, but government PSAs might reinforce stereotypes and make light of the issue.
“I think that the surveys will be a helpful reality check for college and university administration that has been telling concerned students that this is not as big of a deal as it actually is,” Bessey said. “[But] a helpful government PSA — I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Still, Bessey said the amount of national attention directed toward the issue of sexual assault in recent years has increased the legitimacy of student advocacy efforts on campuses and that the task force recommendations are a step in the right direction.
“The nature of the recommendations surprised me in a good way and seemed to have responded largely to the grievances that have been being raised by sexual assault [awareness] activists on campuses,” Bessey said.
Last May, USC gained national attention when 16 students and alumni submitted a Title IX complaint to the Office for Civil Rights regarding the university’s treatment of sexual assault victims and errors in its reporting and adjudication process.
In September 2013, the university hired a Title IX investigator with the primary responsibility of investigating cases of sexual assault and following up with survivors throughout the reporting process. That same month, the USC Department of Public Safety released its Annual Campus Security and Fire Safety Report. The report made adjustments for forcible sex offenses, not noted in the previous year’s report.
The changes were made as part of the university’s effort to increase compliance with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which requires college campuses to document three calendar years of campus crime statistics.
In March, Ainsley Carry, vice provost for Student Affairs, released a statement about the university’s efforts to work with student organizations to increase awareness of sexual assault and provide resources for victims.
In a statement to the Daily Trojan, Carry said the university is continually reviewing existing policies and he and his colleagues are in the process of reviewing the task force report.
“We will review these documents and analyze our policies and practices accordingly … and we will use this opportunity to emphasize our support of students’ rights under Title IX,” Carry wrote in an email.
Kaya Masler, executive co-director of the USC Women’s Assembly and a member of the Safer Campus Initiative, a group within the Women’s Assembly, said she knows individuals who contributed to the task force report and she is pleased with the recommendations but hopes that additional details will be provided about possible sanctions for perpetrators of sexual assault.
Masler has worked with administrators to improve the reporting and adjudication process, but administrators often rely on student organizations to focus on peer prevention and awareness and bystander education
“Although we do our best, we are also full time students without the ability to ensure that other students attend our events,” Masler said. “This leaves the majority of the student population undereducated about consent, and that’s really dangerous.”
Bessey maintains the White House’s efforts are a step in the right direction, but it is difficult to determine whether or not they can be successfully implemented on campus and lead to effective reform.
“Right now these recommendations are fantastic but they don’t have any teeth without laws behind them,” Bessey said. “Furthermore, without means of enforcing those laws, even the current laws that we have that deal with these issues — the most significant being Title IX and the Clery Act — we can see on our own campus how slow that process comes about and how much schools don’t seem to necessarily fear retribution from these issues,” Bessey said.