New regulations to combat sexual assault on college campuses

President Obama is shown with Vice President Joseph R. Biden as he announced the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault in January photo from The Chronicle of Higher Education)

The White House yesterday announced a new series of proposals to force colleges and universities to do a better job to prevent sexual assaults on campuses, and to do more to support the victims of assaults when they do occur. The proposals came from a high-level task force the president created in January (it contained three cabinet secretaries) to address an issue that has received intense scrutiny both on college campuses, as well as in the media, in the last year or so.

A key finding of the task force, as reported in The New York Times, is that, “one in five female college students has been assaulted, but that just 12 percent of such attacks are reported.” As a father with one daughter in college, and a second heading there in the future, these numbers are disturbing. It is clear that we in higher education need to heed the call for reform.

The task force report offers a series of recommendations, categorized in four broad areas:

  1. Identifying in more detail the breadth and depth of the problem of sexual assault on individual campuses through implementation of climate surveys;
  2. Implementing programs to prevent sexual assault;
  3. Responding effectively when sexual assaults do occur; and
  4. The U.S. Department of Education needs to increase transparency and improve the enforcement of federal laws regarding sexual assault.

The issue of sexual assault on campus is multifaceted. Students who have been the victim of these attacks have two primary paths for adjudication: the criminal justice system in their local community, and the campus student judicial process. The task force recommendations focus on what have been perceived (and in some cases, well documented) weaknesses in how campus judicial conduct proceedings treat the victims of sexual assaults. Many victims, women in particular, turn to these proceedings either instead of the criminal justice system, or while they are waiting for criminal justice proceedings to take place.

Campus student conduct hearings, like criminal trials, attempt to balance the rights of the accuser with those of the accused. While they do not adhere to the same level of protection of each that we have in our criminal justice system, it is still a messy arena for many campuses. So anything the federal government can do to help improve these processes, through technical assistance to colleges as well as through clarifying federal regulations, will help.

But the key to everything the task force discovered in its work can be found in its second recommendation: getting colleges to do more to prevent sexual assaults. The more attacks that can be prevented, the fewer victims there will be, the fewer campus judicial hearings will be required, and the less time, money, and effort colleges will need to spend. This is a case where more money expended upfront to prevent attacks will be well spent.

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