White House report on campus sexual violence laudable, misses an important mark

In a time of consistent reports of colleges and universities failing to take campus sexual violence seriously, the White House created the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, which released its first report, Not Alone this week. As with many issues related to sexual violence, the issue of campus sexual violence is complex and multilayered, and the report addresses many of these issues.

The report is practical and commendable in its approaches to campus sexual violence response and prevention. It strikes a much needed (and often difficult) balance between sexual violence prevention, supporting and empowering students, holding offenders accountable, and encouraging transparency in college and university response to reports of sexual assault.

Thankfully, despite misguided comments from RAINN suggesting they do otherwise, the Task Force noted the need to focus on prevention and engaging men in prevention efforts. Colleges and universities are perfectly positioned for sexual violence prevention. Given the learning environment and close-knit community style of college campuses, programs like Green Dot and Maine-based Speak About It can have a real positive effect on increasing male engagement, bystander intervention, and sexual violence prevention.

The report discusses the importance of confidential services and campus/local sexual assault support center partnerships in victim healing and their ability to make informed decisions about how they wish to proceed in private. Sexual assault support centers have the expertise and the ability to provide free, confidential help for those in need. Maine’s sexual assault support centers have great relationships with the 35 colleges and universities across Maine.

The report also offers guidance on creating better disciplinary systems for colleges and universities, including urging schools to prohibit those involved in disciplinary processes from asking about a victim’s previous sexual history or the presence of a former consensual sexual relationship with the offender. The guidance also suggests that colleges prohibit the allowance of personal cross-examination between the victim and the offender.

However, the report does not include guidance on how to punish students found guilty of rape. As Jessica Valenti pointed out in a recent Guardian column, the significance of this issue can’t be understated. Students found in violation of their school’s sexual misconduct policy are often not expelled or even suspended, and in some instances are merely asked to write a letter of apology to their victim. The Task Force acknowledges that this report is merely a first step and we can only hope that a solution to punishing student rapists will be forthcoming.

It’s important to recognize the Task Force’s report and the efforts to address such a complex and enormous issue. Given the culture of tolerance – despite claims of “zero tolerance” – regarding sexual violence on campuses across the US, the recommendations are great first steps in turning the tide of college sexual violence victimization.

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