White House Raises the Bar for Colleges’ Handling of Sexual Assault

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The White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault has released new guidelines for colleges, signaling higher federal expectations of them. President Obama is shown with Vice President Joseph R. Biden as he announced the task force’s creation in January.
April 29, 2014

The Obama administration unveiled stringent new guidelines on Tuesday designed to help colleges combat sexual assault and provide victims with a "road map" to file complaints against institutions that fall short in their responses.

In 20 pages of recommendations, the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault provides practical instructions for colleges to identify, prevent, and respond to sexual assault. And it prescribes several steps to improve and bring more transparency to federal enforcement of applicable civil-rights laws.

President Obama created the group in January, promising a coordinated federal response to deal with rape and sexual assault on campuses. The group’s membership includes the U.S. attorney general and the leaders of several other cabinet-level agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Education.

The task force’s report comes at a time when students are driving the debate over how colleges should prevent and respond to sexual assault. Over the past year, activists and rape survivors across the country have publicly faulted colleges—which are legally required to respond to reports of sexual assault—for what they see as inadequate responses. In many cases, the students have filed complaints under the federal civil-rights law known as Title IX.

The task force has spent the past three months gathering information from thousands of people—students, victims, alumni, administrators, law-enforcement officials, campus professionals—about how colleges handle sexual assault. Under the new guidance, colleges will answer to heightened expectations from Washington.

Among other recommendations, the task force calls on colleges to:

  • Conduct "climate surveys" beginning next year to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault and learn more about students’ attitudes toward it.
  • Train campus officials on how to respond to victims of sexual assault.
  • Amend their existing policies to provide victims with greater options to speak confidentially with certain campus officials.
  • Adapt their campus disciplinary processes to abide by new directives from the Department of Education.

The report also makes clear that the federal government will take a harder line on enforcing Title IX—which outlines colleges’ legal obligations to prevent, investigate, and resolve reports of sexual assault whether or not law-enforcement authorities get involved—and provide much more information about it.

A new website,, will provide not only a greater array of resources to survivors of sexual assault, but also a collection of previously hard-to-find data and documents. Those will include court filings from the Department of Justice related to campus sexual violence, and agreements reached between colleges and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on similar matters.

"Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault," Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in a written statement. "No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist. We need to give victims the support they need—like a confidential place to go—and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice."

Tools for Change

To accomplish those goals, the task force signaled that it would explore new approaches to campuses’ disciplinary systems.

Policy guidance from the Department of Education, released on Tuesday, includes key changes in how colleges can conduct their disciplinary hearings: Parties involved in a case are "strongly" discouraged from cross-examining each other, the new guidance says. A victim’s sexual history should not be part of the proceedings, it continues, and a past consensual relationship between the two parties doesn’t preclude an eventual finding of sexual violence.

Campus officials often lament the difficulty in knowing whether they’re using the most effective approaches to, say, develop effective prevention programs or determine how best to levy sanctions against a student found responsible for sexual assault.

The report provides a variety of tools to assist campus officials in answering those sorts of questions and others.

For the climate surveys, the White House is providing colleges with a tool kit explaining how to develop and conduct a survey using evidence-based questions. Rutgers University’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children will pilot and evaluate the effectiveness of the survey, which White House officials said could become mandatory on all campuses by 2016.

In the coming months, the Justice Department will also offer online technical assistance for campus officials to help them understand how victims of sexual assault may react during and following an assault. Later this year, federal agencies will go on to develop "trauma-informed" training programs for campus officials who are involved in investigating and adjudicating sexual-assault cases, and similar programs for those who work in campus health centers.

Campus policies on confidentiality also come under scrutiny. As colleges have sought to revamp their policies and be more responsive to sexual assault, some have instructed nearly all of their employees to report such incidents, the report says. The task force deemed that a "well-intentioned" practice that nonetheless may discourage victims from seeking help, and encouraged colleges to discontinue the approach—urging them instead to "strike that often difficult balance" between providing a safe campus environment and being mindful of a victim’s desire for confidentiality.

A ‘Game Changer?’

In calling for greater transparency in federal enforcement of civil-rights laws, the task force has zeroed in on what many student activists see as a systemic problem: a lack of coordination among federal authorities charged with enforcing civil-rights laws, and little transparency in their actions.

Last summer the students brought their demands to Washington, and found an audience. A group of activists met in July with officials from the White House and the Department of Education to ask for tougher and more-transparent enforcement of Title IX among colleges and collaboration among federal agencies in doing so.

The task force appears to have heard them. In addition to a pledge to make enforcement more transparent and provide colleges and students with more resources, the report says that the Departments of Education and Justice have formally agreed to work together more closely to enforce Title IX.

The administration hopes the new website,, will help more students understand their rights under Title IX and file federal complaints when necessary.

A "strong and principled stand" from the task force to help colleges deal with campus violence comes at the right time, Lisa Maatz, vice president for government relations at the American Association of University Women, said in an email. She said she had particularly high hopes for the new website, with its concentration of resources and documents that previously had been scattered or unavailable. When it comes to transparency, she said, "it is our hope that this can be a game changer."

Some student activists weren’t so sure. In a written statement, the survivor-led Know Your IX campaign said it was encouraged to see many of the group’s demands—particularly its call for greater transparency—at the heart of the task force’s report. But the new steps, it said, still fall short.

The Department of Education is not revealing publicly the names of institutions under investigation for alleged violations of Title IX, the group said. (That information is available only upon request.) And the task force’s recommendations are silent on a central tenet of the group’s activism: that the department’s Office for Civil Rights have the ability to impose fines on colleges that run afoul of the law.

The department has never penalized a college for violations of Title IX related to sexual violence, the group said in its statement. "Such tolerance allows institutional abuses to go unchecked at students’ expense," it said. "These changes will mean little until Title IX enforcement is finally given teeth."