White House initiative a supplement, not replacement, to addressing sexual assault

By Daily Illini Editorial Board

President Barack Obama on Wednesday had one message to the estimated one in five women who are rape or sexual assault survivors and the 12 percent who have yet to report the violence: “I’ve got your back.”

Taking a stand against an often covert issue, President Obama launched a federal task force that is responsible for delivering recommendations to colleges, including suggestions for prevention and response as well as increased oversight of legal obligations already in place. He also called on school officials to extend their obligations to fighting against sexual assault and protecting victims of sexual assault.

And that’s exactly where the fight needs to start: here and on other campuses across the nation, where sexual assault is most prevalent. It’s a grassroots movement, gaining recognition by the students across the country who have been brave enough to tell their stories, and now the government is listening. 

A few days after Obama’s announcement, an ESPN Outside the Lines story suggested University of Missouri administrators and athletic officials did not properly investigate allegations that, in 2010, an unidentified number of football players raped then-swimmer Sasha Menu Courey, who later committed suicide.

A number of school officials reportedly heard about the incident but didn’t alert police or begin their own investigation. And although each situation in which a sexual assault or rape occurs, including Courey’s, is tragic, the circumstances under which they occur are not necessarily unique.

According to a White House Council on Women and Girls report, around 22 million women and girls in the United States are sexual assault survivors.

On campus, women can be more at risk — with the combination of factors such as alcohol, the 18-22 age cohort and students learning to live independently playing major roles. And often the alleged rapists are repeat offenders, according to the report.

Courey’s case was the latest high-profile example of a sexual assault case gone unrecognized, unacknowledged. And it’s another sobering reminder that these things do happen, especially where many students call home — college campuses. 

But many more rape or sexual assault survivors are invisible, as those incidents often go unreported, or reported without a conviction.

According to the White House report, on average, only 12 percent of the cases — which include completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol and drug facilitated completed penetration — are actually reported.

At the University of Illinois, according to last year’s annual security report, there were 10 cases reported of sex offenses on campus in 2012, eight of which were reported in residence facilities. Two more cases were reported off-campus. 

That’s a small, and fairly inaccurate, snapshot of what is happening in apartments, dorms, bars and almost any other place on and off campus. On a campus of 40,000 students, this statistic is a reminder of all the cases that go unreported — those who are victims of sexual assault but not represented in the numbers. 

So what can Washington do?

It can crack down on schools that are failing to report such incidents, and even yank funding. It can strengthen oversight by making college administrators even more aware of the sexual assaults that occur right under their noses.

But in the meantime, the University community needs to take the situation into its own hands. We can’t rely on the broadness of the federal government to fix an issue that is happening specifically, although not only, on college campuses. We can’t expect the government’s initiative to succeed if colleges aren’t assisting and incentivizing victims of sexual assault in reporting their incidents in the first place.

Because waiting is something we just can’t afford.