Federal task force to target campus sexual assaults

By Jason Felch and Larry Gordon

President Barack Obama launched a federal task force on Wednesday to combat sexual assault on college campuses, telling the estimated one in five women who are victims, “I’ve got your back.”

Flanked by senior members of his Cabinet at the White House, Obama said he expected recommendations from the group within 90 days. He credited an “inspiring wave of student-led activism” that has cast a spotlight on the issue in recent years.

Obama called on men to get involved in the fight and “summon the bravery to stand up.”

“We’ve got to keep teaching young men in particular to show women the respect they deserve and to recognize sexual violence and be outraged by it, and to do their part to stop it from happening in the first place,” the president said.

The East Room meeting was part of a series of events that the White House has held in the last couple of months to highlight the president’s ability to focus attention on specific issues, often by getting groups outside the government to work on them. It’s a way of moving forward on policy goals at a time when there’s little chance of getting legislation through Congress.

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    The White House released a report finding that 22 million women and girls in the United States have been sexually assaulted, the majority by men they know.

    The report, by the White House Council on Women and Girls, identified college as a particularly risky place for women, noting that campus rapists are often repeat offenders. Obama called on college presidents across the country to do more to prevent the assaults.

    Wednesday’s announcement was seen as a victory by many college activists, who have organized online in recent years to file federal complaints against administrators.

    “Having Obama come forward in such a public way is demanding a public shift,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a law student at Yale University who co-filed a Title IX complaint against the school in 2011.

    “With one report, one public statement, and the power of his office, President Obama just changed the course of sexual violence on campus,” said Caroline Heldman, a politics professor at Occidental College — Obama’s alma mater — who has helped student activists organize.

    “We have a long way to go in this struggle, but campus administrators will no longer be able to drag their feet, retaliate against survivors and enact superficial instead of actual changes,” she said.

    The presidential spotlight comes amid a significant rise in federal complaints filed by students across the country under Title IX, an anti-discrimination law that requires impartial investigations of assault allegations, and the Clery Act, which mandates accurate reporting of campus crimes.

    There were 30 Title IX complaints involving sexual violence in 2013, up from 11 in 2009, according to the Department of Education, which enforces the law.

    In California, students have filed federal complaints against USC, Occidental College and UC Berkeley alleging the schools discouraged victims from reporting their assaults and bungled the investigations required by the anti-discrimination law. Administrators have been more focused on protecting their public images than their students, the complaints say.

    In September, Occidental came to a monetary settlement with at least 10 women who were part of the federal complaint.

    State legislators have proposed new reporting laws for public campuses. In November, state auditors launched a review of four California campuses: San Diego State University, Cal State Chico, UCLA and UC Berkeley. Amid the scrutiny, evidence has mounted that colleges have failed to comply with the federal laws.

    Last fall, USC and Occidental acknowledged they had neglected to report dozens of sexual assaults in their annual crime reports in 2010 and 2011.

    In December, a Times review found an additional two dozen or more sexual assaults that Occidental failed to report in 2012, a likely violation of the Clery Act.

    As Obama spoke, UC Berkeley junior Sofie Karasek was telling a San Francisco meeting of the UC regents about her sexual assault at an off-campus event in 2012.

    She said it took eight months for the university to conclude its investigation, and that she was only told that her assailant had violated the conduct code.

    “How do you sleep at night, knowing that while you are busy sweeping rape under the rug, your students are being assaulted because of your inaction?” Karasek said during the public comment period. “How would you feel if one of your children or someone you know went through this utterly useless, demeaning process?”

    UC President Janet Napolitano told reporters later that “the basic question is, and what each chancellor needs to be sure of is: Are our campuses safe and, if an incident occurs, is the victim taken care of and is the perpetrator identified and punished accordingly?”

    Similar stories to Karasek’s have surfaced on campuses across the country.

    The task force created by the president targets many of those concerns, calling on federal agencies to coordinate their response to the complaints and crack down on schools who fail to comply with federal law.

    Obama, the father of two girls, noted parallels with the ongoing controversy over sexual assaults in the military, saying, “sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals. It threatens our families, it threatens our communities; ultimately, it threatens the entire country.”

    The White House report also called for changes in how law enforcement handles sexual assault cases.

    Only 12% of campus assaults are reported to police, the report noted. When they are, they rarely lead to convictions. Among the reasons: Survivors can be too traumatized to come forward and police and prosecutors can be biased, doubting the credibility of victims or are reluctant to take on the difficult cases, the report said.

    The report also called for faster processing of rape kits, which collect evidence that is vital to many prosecutions.

    “In order to put an end to this violence, we as a nation must see it for what it is: a crime,” the report said. “Not a misunderstanding, not a private matter, not anyone’s right or any woman’s fault.”