A White House task force on sexual assault recommended actions Tuesday that colleges and universities should take to protect victims and inform the public about the magnitude of the problem, such as identifying confidential victim's advocates and conducting surveys to better gauge the frequency of sexual assault on their campuses.
The recommendations stem from a 90-day review by the task force that President Barack Obama created after his administration heard complaints about the poor treatment of campus rape victims and the hidden nature of such crimes.
The task force also promised greater transparency. A new website, notalone.gov, will post enforcement actions and offers information to victims about how to seek local help and information about filing a complaint.
"Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend that rape and sexual assault doesn't occur on their campus," Vice President Joe Biden said in announcing the results of the task force's work.
Advocates praised the rare, high-profile attention being given to the issue, even as they acknowledged that much of the action required will still need to come from college administrators.
Lisa Maatz, vice president for government affairs with the American Association of University Women, said the "smart schools" will take the recommendations and adopt them.
Rory Gerberg, a graduate student and advocate at Harvard University, said that while the task force recommendations will play a central role in determining how universities deal with sexual assaults, they only go so far.
"As students, it will be our responsibility to put pressure on our university administrations to ensure these recommendations are put into practice," Gerberg said.
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said her organization representing college and university presidents welcomed the chance to collaborate with the government on handling sexual assaults, "which the task force notes is a 'complicated, multidimensional problem with no easy or quick solutions."
Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, president at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and the immediate past chair of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said there's room for improvement in how college campuses and communities handle sexual assault cases. She said college presidents will have to review the recommendations to determine what works best in their particular situation.
"If you ask a president what keeps them up at night, more than anything it's the safety of our students," Wilson-Oyelaran said.
On the same day, the Education Department issued "questions and answers" that spelled out to colleges and universities and K-12 schools how to handle circumstances under Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. The 1972 Title IX law is better known for guaranteeing girls equal access to sports, but it also regulates institutions' handling of sexual violence and increasingly is being used by victims who say their school failed to protect them.
Among the directives:
-A victim's sexual history cannot be brought up in a judicial hearing unless it involves the alleged perpetrator and that those working in on-campus sexual assault centers can generally talk to a survivor in confidence.
-A school is required to process complaints of alleged sexual violence that happened off campus to determine whether it occurred in the context of an education-related activity.
-In a K-12 setting, when a school learns that a teacher or other employee has sexually harassed a student, it is responsible for taking "prompt and effective" steps.
-Straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are all protected and a school must resolve "same sex" violence in the same way it does for all such complaints.
In its report, the task force said the Justice Department will help develop training programs in trauma care for college officers and assess different models for schools to use to adjudicate such cases, since some sexual assault survivors are wary of a legal process that can expose them to potentially painful or embarrassing questions by students or staff.
While 1 in 5 female students is assaulted, the White House said the review was also about protecting male victims and engaging men in discussions about preventing such assaults. Research has shown that most campus sexual assault victims know their attackers, alcohol or drugs are often involved and only 12 percent of college women attacked report it to police.