President to Crack Down on Campus Rapes Where Colleges Have Failed

Only 12 percent of survivors report their campus sex assaults. When they do, they are often re-victimized by a shoddy reporting system and faulty administrators.

President Barack Obama signs a presidential memorandum establishing a campus rape task force at the White House on Jan. 22. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Getty Images)

Jan 23, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

When I was in college, “rape” was the sort of four-letter word that was rarely spoken, despite protests and antirape marches such as “Take Back the Night.” Women I knew had experienced the trauma of sexual assault on campus, but many never reported the incidents, afraid of being targeted by their assailant or having their claims dismissed by the school.

It was a conspiracy of silence.

Times haven't changed.

President Barack Obama cited a report this week that although 1 in 5 students is sexually assaulted, only 12 percent of survivors notify authorities. The occasion was the signing of his memorandum to form the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.

Obama's vocal concern broke the long-held code of silence, and by calling sexual assault “simply unacceptable,” he has renewed hope for college activists and campus rape prevention groups, including those that have turned to 1972’s federal education anti–sex discrimination law, Title IX, to file complaints against universities.

Obama's task force, made up of administration officials, has been given 90 days to formulate prevention and response recommendations for colleges. It is also tasked with figuring out how to ensure that federal agencies become involved when such crimes occur among students but are not committed on campuses.

Savannah Badalich, a 21-year-old UCLA student and the school's appointed student wellness commissioner, founded the anti–campus assault campaign 7,000 in Solidarity after being assaulted last year in her sleep during a student government retreat. In the five months since the campaign began, she has heard from 80 other UCLA students who say they are victims of sexual assault.

“There’s a stigma. Survivors are shamed when they speak out. My favorite part is that [Obama] is going at the inadequate response of the justice system. I hope the task force makes long-lasting changes,” says Badalich.

That inadequate response can range from school administration officials and law enforcement blaming victims in situations where alcohol is involved, to students, male and female, and officials being unclear about the definition of “consent.”

“Consent to past actions does not give future consent. Consent needs to be enthusiastic and verbal. If you see a friend acting without consent, you need to stop them,” says Badalich.

Abigail Leeder, director of sexual violence prevention and education at the University of Oregon, welcomes both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who has long been outspoken about the issue, as good role models for men.

Balancing the needs of the survivor with campus safety and accountability should always be addressed, she adds, in addition to underreporting of sexual assault crimes.

“We haven’t created a system yet that when people do come forward, they won’t have to go through another traumatic experience such as a conduct process,” she says. Such situations are all too common at campuses across the country, as TakePart has documented. “My hope is we actually create the system that holds perpetrators accountable for sexual violence.”

Badalich and Tracey E. Vitchers, communications coordinator of Students Active for Ending Rape, agree that rape prevention education needs to include faculty and staff.

For instance, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which goes into effect March 7, would in part require ongoing sexual assault programming year-round instead of just at school orientation, says Vitchers.

Badalich would also like Obama’s task force to include college students and alumni who have experienced sexual assault, and representatives from minority and gay communities.

“They’re far removed from the situation,” she says of Washington politicos. “How can you really understand the problem if you’re so far removed?”