White House Task Force Seeks to Tackle College Sexual Assault

A new task force will help colleges prevent and respond, and hold them accountable when they fail.

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, speaks on Jan. 22, 2014, before signing a memorandum creating a task force to respond to campus rapes.
By + More

President Barack Obama is bringing national attention to cases of sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, with the formation of a new task force intended to help schools better prevent and respond to such incidents.

Alongside the release of a report from the White House's Council on Women and Girls – which detailed the physical, mental and economic repercussions of sexual assault – Obama announced the formation of a task force that would help colleges and universities prevent and respond to sexual assault reports, as well as hold them accountable for failing to do so.

[READ: Feds Launch Title IX Investigation at USC]

"Even now, it's not always talked about enough. It can still go on in the shadows. But it affects every one of us," Obama said at the White House Wednesday, before signing a presidential memorandum to create the task force. "Sexual assault is an affront to our basic decency and humanity. And for survivors, the awful pain can take years, even decades to heal. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime."

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, as it is called, will provide colleges and universities with best practices for sexual assault prevention and response, build on federal government enforcement of colleges' legal obligations, increase public awareness of institutions' track records, and enhance efforts to hold institutions accountable when they fall short in addressing sexual assault on their campuses.

According to the report, nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been raped in their lifetimes, and campus perpetrators are often repeat offenders. Of the 7 percent of college men who admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, more than half said they had committed multiple offenses, "averaging six rapes each," the report says.

Obama said the fact that so many women are sexually assaulted while they're in college is "totally unacceptable."

 

"These young women worked so hard just to get into college, often their parents are doing everything they can to help them pay for it," he said. "So when they finally make it there only to be assaulted, that is not just a nightmare for them and their families, it's an affront to everything they've worked so hard to achieve."

But those numbers, the report says, "don't begin to tell the whole story."

"They don't tell of the physical, emotional and psychological scars that a victim can carry for life. They don't speak to the betrayal and broken trust when the attacker is a friend, a trusted colleague, or a family member," the report says. "And they don't give voice to the courage of survivors who work every day to put their lives back together."

Not only do these incidents take a toll on students physically and emotionally, but they can also lead to related behaviors that hinder their abilities to perform well academically. According to the report, college-aged rape survivors suffer from PTSD, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse, which can be linked to higher dropout rates.

Obama urged students to come forward with their claims of sexual assault, as just 12 percent of student victims report the incidents to law enforcement officials.

Two major federal laws govern how colleges and universities must handle reports of sexual assaults on campus. Title IX requires institutions that receive federal funding to work to prevent such incidents – and to respond quickly when they occur – while the Clery Act requires colleges that participate in federal financial aid programs to report annual crime statistics, among other provisions.

[ALSO: Teen Sexual Assaults Highlight Need for Prevention Programs]

In recent months, several colleges and universities have been the target of sexual assault reports, as students from Yale, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Occidental College, and the University of California–Berkeley, have filed complaints with the Department of Education. Those students have alleged that their colleges violated their rights under the two laws, saying the institutions under-reported or mishandled their cases.