'Not Alone': White House issues report on campus sexual assault

By Elizabeth Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Yesterday, the White House issued the first report from the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The full report can be found here, and it outlines initial steps to help identify the scope of the problem, prevent assaults on campus, enable schools to respond effectively, and set up better enforcement by the federal government.

“Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses,” said Vice President Biden with the release of the report. “We need to provide survivors with more support and we need to bring perpetrators to more justice and we need colleges and universities to step up.”

U.S. Catholic covered this issue back in 2012, as our article Getting through? explored what was being done by colleges in moments of crisis for students. The basic conclusion was: Not enough. In the article, Brett Sokolow, a Pennsylvania-based attorney and consultant who helps colleges design and implement sexual misconduct policies said, “To truly transform victim-blaming culture, we need to examine root constructs of masculinity and femininity, objectification of the human body, the continuum of sexual violence, and the deeper issues of what makes our society and our campuses rape-prone cultures. Very few campuses have the will to go that deep.”

We also examined why better response is urgently needed on Catholic campuses. Nicole Sotelo, author of the book Women Healing from Abuse (Paulist Press) explains: “Catholicism supports healthy relationships. If a relationship turns violent—be it emotional, physical, or sexual violence—the United States bishops and other Catholic leaders have made it clear that abuse and violence [are] a sin and should be condemned. Similarly, Catholic campuses should unequivocally condemn violence in relationships, ensure justice is sought, and healing is made available. The bishops are clear that there is no room for blaming the victim.”

One of the many recommendations of the White House report is making sure that schools have trained confidential victim advocates who can provide support both in emergency situations and going forward from those first moments of crisis. A key best practice, the report says, having advocates often helps victims connect with resources, navigate processes, and file complains and cooperate more fully in investigations.

This recommendation stood out to me after having read a few weeks ago in the New York Times an in-depth report that investigated the accusations against Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, who last season led Florida State to the national football championship and won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s top player. In addition to taking a closer look at how the allegations against Winston were handled, the report also took a wider view at how Florida State and the local authorities handle sexual assault cases. (Winston was back in the news today for shoplifting some seafood.) In a case not related to the Winston allegations, the report quotes one victim describing talking to a police officer in the aftermath of an assault: “The first thing he asked me,” she recounted, “was if I was sure this was rape or if I just didn’t want a baby or wanted the morning after pill.” He also made comments, she said, “like, ‘Are you sure you want to file a report? It will be very awkward, especially for a female.’”

The government’s report and its website are titled “Not Alone.” The report--and the messages being conveyed that this issue is being addressed seriously at the national level--is a good first step, and it recognizes that more work must be done on all sides of this issue: from the government, from the schools, and from the students themselves. 

UPDATE (5/1): The Education Department has released a list of 55 colleges and universities that are "currently facing a Title IX investigation over their handling of sexual abuse complaints." This does not mean that the universities have violated the law; just that there is an ongoing investigation. The department said that going forward, it will keep a list of all schools facing these types of investigations and make the information available upon request.

Image: Photo by Tom A. Wright