This past week, the White House began shining an unwavering spotlight on collegiate sexual assault, and students will definitely benefit in the long term.
Unfortunately, it is statistically proven that college students are highly likely to experience sexual assault or unwanted sexual attention during their college careers. Combating this fact within an institution is easier said then done, though, as sexual assault presents a complex web of problems for college officials. In an act to aid institutions and ensure a strong enforcement response against perpetrators, the White House revealed “Not Alone”–the first report by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault–on April 28. The report is highly foundational in nature, but it certainly lays much needed groundwork for more exhaustive future action.
With the preliminary nature of the report, it is possible to question the effectiveness of it and the task force, as neither was created in conjunction with any new legislation. However, such a thought is misguided, because the report and its online web platform notalone.gov, aim to make it easy for students to know their rights and to report institutions that are mishandling sexual assault cases. The report and task force draw power from the fact that all education institutions, be they public or private, receive federal funding. This means that they all must be compliant with Title IX, which precludes discrimination on the basis of sex. Mishandling cases of sexual assault can automatically make institutions non-compliant with Title IX and threaten their federal funding. This adds definitive teeth to the report and task force, for their very existence means that the federal government is making such cases a priority.
To truly prove that they are starting to make sexual assault a priority, the White House did more than just release a report; they threatened the pubic image of institutions that have been reported mishandling cases of sexual assault. On May 1, the task force made public a list of 55 educational institutions around the U.S. currently under federal investigation for Title IX non-compliance for their handling of sexual assault cases. Schools under investigation range from elite institutions like Harvard to public universities like the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ensuring a media field day, the White House proved through this measure that they are planning to go the distance in carrying out the actions detailed in the report. This will have an immense positive impact for students, because failing to address and prevent sexual assault is a systemic issue on college campuses. Bringing the discussion firmly into the public sphere can only further propel action, discourse, and positive change.
It would be irresponsible, though, to say that the report is a cure-all for sexual assault. It is not, by a long shot. Instead, the report and task force are excellent initial steps to diminish sexual assault. This fact is made quite evident by our very own campus. In comparing many of procedures and policies suggested in the task force’s report to those already in place at the University of California, Santa Barbara, it is both reassuring and disheartening to realize that UCSB has comparatively progressive procedures and policies in place. This current academic year, UCSB has been shaken by several acts of sexual violence, including the tragic gang rape of a student, so it does not need repeating that sexual assault is a very real danger at UCSB. However, UCSB meets nearly every standard set forth by the report and the task force. The report calls for campus climate surveys, prevention efforts, and coordinated plans to respond with enforcement effectively; UCSB provides all of those items. However, the most recent campus climate survey from March 2014 revealed that 13 percent of UCSB undergraduate students experienced unwanted sexual contact within the last five years. Furthermore, the most recent data on forcible sex offenses revealed that in 2012, 15 offenses occurred on the UCSB campus or through UCSB student organizations. This demonstrates that for all of the efforts, UCSB still has a long way to go, as do many other institutions.
Sexual assault is a crime that is inherently personal, and it has the power to insidiously infect a person’s well-being. It is an excellent step forward that the White House is taking to make collegiate sexual assault a bigger priority at a federal level. However, as exemplified by our very own campus, steps forward can certainly combat a problem, yet they will not truly diminish it and solve it entirely without immense, concerted effort. Rape culture pervades our society, and until it has been torn down, sexual assault will continue to be a problem. The White House, though, has put into motion desperately needed actions for addressing sexual assault, and for this, commendation is due. Benefits for students will only continue to increase as the issue continues to be tackled.