White House presses colleges on sex assaults

By Jennifer Steinhauer / New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Reacting to a series of highly publicized rapes on college campuses, the White House is increasing the pressure on universities to more aggressively combat sexual assaults on campus.

Administration officials released guidelines Monday that colleges should follow, including recommendations that administrators conduct anonymous surveys of sexual assault cases. The White House is likely to ask Congress for measures that would enforce the recommendations.

The guidelines are contained in a report by a White House task force that President Barack Obama formed early this year.

The report will also urge universities to better ensure that sexual assault reports remain confidential. Sometimes fears that reports will not remain confidential can discourage victims from coming forward.

The task force further found that many assault prevention training efforts are not effective, and it will recommend that universities and colleges establish programs like those used at the University of New Hampshire and University of Kentucky, which train bystanders how to intervene.

Many advocates for such a crackdown may see the proposals as an inadequate response to a crisis, but the White House is hamstrung about what it can do without congressional action and has just began its own attack on the issue.

A number of recent cases have focused attention on the problem and led to accusations that college and university officials are not doing enough to police sexual crimes committed by students. The resulting furor has led to calls that Washington — where Congress and the administration are already moving to crack down on sexual assault in the military — take similar action when it comes to colleges and universities.

The task force says that 1 in 5 college students has been assaulted, but just 12 percent of such attacks are reported.

“The American people have kind of woken up to the fact that we’ve got a serious problem when 20 percent of coeds say they’ve been sexually assaulted,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.

Lawmakers and the White House have condemned the assaults on campuses, but the federal government has largely left it up to college officials and the local authorities. Congress last year passed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which requires domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking cases be disclosed in annual campus crime statistics. But victims’ advocates say that does not go far enough.

And a federal law from decades ago that requires colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses, including sex offenses, is rarely enforced, critics say.