White House task force aims to improve sexual assault response on college campuses

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Echoing recent calls at the campus and state levels, President Barack Obama announced the creation of a White House task force to address sexual assault on college campuses Wednesday.

Headed by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the task force is an interagency effort that includes U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the heads of various other departments. Obama gave the task force 90 days to submit an action plan that will detail how the federal government can maximize its efficacy in combating sexual assault and make its enforcement activities more transparent.

“When a young woman drops out of school after being attacked, that’s not just a loss for her,” Obama said at a press conference on Wednesday. “That’s a loss for our country.”

In “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call for Action,” a report the Council on Women and Girls submitted to Obama, members of the council found that sexual assault on college campuses poses a unique problem both to women and men and that the criminal justice response is often inadequate.

Referring to data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics between 2005 and 2010, the report said that only 36 percent of rape and sexual assault incidents across the United States were reported to police and that just 12 percent resulted in follow-up investigations or arrests of the perpetrators.

The report also detailed the severity of the rape kit backlog problem in many jurisdictions. Last week, when introducing legislation to expedite rape kit processing, state Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, called untested rape kits “a second assault on the victim” at a press conference Tuesday.

Under Title IX, a federal law, colleges that receive federal funding are obligated to take actions to prevent sexual assault and respond swiftly when it occurs. The federal Clery Act requires colleges participating in federal financial aid programs to report annual crime statistics. Because various agencies — such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Education — participate in enforcing federal compliance and litigating cases, the newly created task force aims to improve interagency collaboration.

The state auditor’s office is currently investigating UC Berkeley and three other California public higher education institutions’ compliance with federal laws, with results slated for release in April. According to information obtained by the Bay Area News Group, UC Berkeley held just one formal hearing out of 32 sexual misconduct cases between 2011 and 2013.

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said it is “premature” to determine how Obama’s task force could affect the campus or its policies. In an email, Gilmore said, “The campus’ process of strengthening its efforts remains underway.” Among other steps, the campus instituted an interim policy last semester that allows survivors of sexual assault to appeal the outcome of their cases.

A national wave of activism against rape and sexual assault has emerged on college campuses over the past several years. In recognition of this work, members of the Council on Women and Girls wrote that the report “aims to be a part of that conversation.”

UC Berkeley junior Sofie Karasek, who has organized on campus for improved sexual assault policies, is optimistic that the task force “will put a spotlight on college administrators.” Still, she wants to see the federal government’s efforts closely parallel those already undertaken by students.

“I hope that the work of students at Berkeley and at other colleges informs the president’s task force rather than the other way around,” Karasek said.

While Obama’s signed memorandum does not directly call for student task force members, it states student groups will be consulted in the development of a federal response.

Austin Pritzkat, facilitator of the ASUC Office of the President’s sexual assault task force, also expressed hope that members of the federal group will consider student voices.

“His announcement is a sign that students’ organizing is making an impact,” Pritzkat said. “The hard work of activists and organizers is really pushing his agenda.”

Contact Kimberly Veklerov at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KVeklerov.