The White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault released its first report today, with initial recommendations for how college campuses can better handle sexual assaults.
It's a long time coming. There has been a preponderance of sexual assault cases on college campuses across the country, and often schools' reactions to those cases has been woefully lacking. Just today, the Department of Education ruled that Tufts University violated Title IX in its handling of sexual assaults. President Obama created the task force in January to figure out how schools could better prevent sexual assaults from happening and better handle things when they do.
The report calls for prevention programs that "are sustained (not brief, one-shot educational programs), comprehensive, and address the root individual, relational and societal causes of sexual assault." Bystander intervention is listed as a "promising prevention strateg[y]." The CDC is currently researching the best sexual violence prevention practices.
The Task Force recommends that schools train officials on how to best respond to sexual assault complaints, avoiding "insensitive or judgmental comments" that make the victim feel he or she is being blamed instead of the person accused. It also recommended that colleges do away with mandatory reporting policies that may make students hesitant to report assaults in the first place. Assault survivors should have a place to turn to where they know what they say will remain confidential unless they say otherwise. "This is, by far, the problem we heard most about," the report says.
How schools investigate reports has also been problematic. The Task Force says in no uncertain terms that schools "must take the allegation seriously, and not dissuade a report or otherwise keep the survivor's story under wraps" -- the kinds of things recent federal complaints accused Columbia University of doing. The best practices for how colleges investigate complaints are still being researched, but questions about the survivor's sexual history "should not be permitted."
The federal government also has a role to play. The Department of Education released a sort of FAQ on Title IX today, and a new website is being launched that will "make enforcement data public" and provide both schools and their students with resources they need. Enforcement efforts will also be improved, making it more difficult for schools to drag out Title IX complaints and requiring that schools give survivors "interim relief – such as changing housing or class schedules, issuing no-contact orders, or providing counseling – pending the outcome of an OCR investigation."
The Task Force is also continuing its efforts to conduct surveys of college campuses, which are voluntary for now but could be federally mandated by 2016. This, the Task Force hopes, will give them the clearest possible picture of how big this problem is. "No problem can be solved," the report says, "unless we name it and know the extent of it."