WASHINGTON — Reacting to a series of highly publicized rapes on college campuses, the White House on Monday released guidelines that increase the pressure on universities to more aggressively combat sexual assaults on campus.
The recommendations urge colleges, among other measures, to conduct anonymous surveys about sexual assault cases, adopt anti-assault policies that have been considered successful at other universities and to better ensure that the reports of such crimes remain confidential. The guidelines are contained in a report by a White House task force that President Obama formed early this year, and the administration is likely to ask Congress to pass measures that would enforce the recommendations and levy penalties for failing to do so. The government will also open a website, NotAlone.gov, to track enforcement and provide victims with information.
Stepping Up to Stop Sexual AssaultFEB. 7, 2014
Many advocates for such a crackdown may see the proposals as an inadequate response to a crisis, but the White House is hamstrung about what it can do without congressional action and has just begun its own attack on the issue.
“Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said. “No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist. We need to give victims the support they need, like a confidential place to go, and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The task force says that one in five college students has been assaulted, but that just 12 percent of such attacks are reported.
Mr. Obama appointed the panel after a number of recent cases — at Yale, at Dartmouth and at Florida State — focused attention on the problem and led to accusations that college and university officials are not doing enough to police sexual crimes committed by students. The resulting furor has led to calls that Washington, where Congress and the administration are already moving to crack down on sexual assault in the military, take similar action when it comes to colleges and universities.
“The American people have kind of woken up to the fact that we’ve got a serious problem when 20 percent of coeds say they’ve been sexually assaulted,” said Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California.
Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, said the recommendation for mandatory sexual assault surveys “has been consistently the No. 1 request of student survivors and advocates.”
“I am pleased that the task force has recommended this important step to increasing transparency and accountability, and look forward to growing our bipartisan coalition supporting this and other much-needed reforms,” she said.
The report emphasizes that universities need to do a better job to make sure that sexual assault reports remain confidential. Sometimes fears that reports will become public can discourage victims from coming forward.
The task force further found that many assault-prevention training efforts are not effective, and it recommends that universities and colleges institute programs like those used at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Kentucky, which train bystanders on how to intervene.
Lawmakers and the White House have previously condemned the assaults on campuses, but the federal government has largely left responses up to college officials and the local authorities. Congress last year passed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which requires that domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking cases be disclosed in annual campus crime statistics. But victims’ advocates say that does not go far enough.
And a federal law from two decades ago that requires colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses, including sexual offenses, is rarely enforced, critics say.
There have been some high-profile instances in which the Department of Education has gotten involved in an effort to raise awareness by imposing fines at universities where the most egregious cases have been reported.
Last year, the agency fined Yale University $165,000 for failing to disclose four sexual offenses involving force over several years. Eastern Michigan University paid $350,000 in 2008 for failing to sound a campus alert after a student was sexually assaulted and killed. The department also reached a settlement last year with the University of Montana at Missoula after investigating the university’s sexual-misconduct policies and finding them woefully inadequate.
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, universities that violate student rights in sexual assault cases also risk the loss of federal funding, but the punishment has never been applied.
In the recommended “climate surveys,” participants anonymously report their experiences with unwanted physical contact, sexual assault or rape, and how their schools responded. Some lawmakers would like to see such surveys be mandatory and to possibly make federal funds like Pell grants contingent on their being carried out.
Ms. Gillibrand and Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, who both spent much of last year trying to legislatively police sexual assault in the armed forces, have now turned significant attention to such problems on the nation’s campuses.
“After a year of working hard to reform how the military handles sexual assault cases,” Ms. Gillibrand said in an email, “the stories I have heard from students are eerily similar.”
Ms. McCaskill said she planned to conduct her own survey of 350 colleges.
In all, nearly a dozen senators seeking new federal funding to battle campus sexual assaults.