President Obama's creation of a federal task force to combat sexual assault on college campuses drives home the urgency of this complicated nationwide problem. But it will take more than a few meetings and a punchy final report to address it effectively.
The obstacles facing victims of sexual violence are numerous. Too many schools have failed to take their complaints seriously or to treat them with respect and sympathy. Some schools have sought to sweep problems under the rug, by underreporting assaults to the federal government or by failing to take action against perpetrators. Title IX, the federal antidiscrimination law, requires investigations of assault allegations, yet in California alone, USC, Occidental College and UC Berkeley are alleged to have discouraged victims from reporting assaults. In some cases, victims themselves are reluctant to report to the police.
A White House report said 22 million women and girls in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted, mostly by men they know; campuses, it said, are particularly risky.
Simply by establishing a task force, the president has raised the profile of the problem. But now the panel needs to grapple with issues of campus prevention, tougher on-school policies toward offenders and stricter enforcement of those policies. Among other things, campuses need mandatory educational programming for incoming students.
Studies show rapists on campuses are often repeat offenders. The task force could examine how campuses can make sure that someone found by authorities to be responsible for rape is expelled — not suspended, not given community service. At the same time, the panel could help colleges find the important but tricky balance between vigorously pursuing sexual assault allegations and ensuring the rights of the accused.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for colleges, and therefore for the task force, is to figure out how to change the culture on campuses. Bystanders need to be encouraged to stop a situation from escalating into an assault. Male and female students alike need to realize that sexual assault is not a drunken miscommunication but a violent act that must not be tolerated.