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Karen Hitchcock: A Renewed Call To Action

In late January, President Obama announced the creation of a special task force to examine and, as necessary, coordinate federal enforcement efforts regarding rape and sexual assault on our nation’s campuses. This White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault will provide leadership for colleges and universities as they work on developing more transparent and more effective campus procedures to decrease and/or investigate incidents of sexual assault.

While incidents of sexual assault in the military have received much publicity of late, the fact remains that many more incidents of rape occur on our nation’s campuses. As pointed out in a recent piece by Jackie Calmes in the New York Times (January 22, 2014), a report just issued by the White House Council on Women and Girls states that one in five – yes, one in five – of our nation’s female students have been assaulted; but, only 12% of them actually report these incidents to school officials. Ms. Calmes quotes Vice President Biden in her article who starkly – and accurately - has described the situation. He said, “Our daughters, our sisters, our wives, our mothers, our grandmothers have every right to expect to be free from violence and sexual abuse. No matter what she is wearing, no matter whether she’s in a bar, in a dormitory, in the back seat of a car, on a street, drunk or sober – no man has a right to go beyond the word ‘no.’ And if she can’t consent, it also means no.”

The report, entitled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” describes the current situation regarding the incidence and reporting of sexual assault. It also reiterates the mandates of Title IX, an act passed in 1972 which was designed to bar sexual discrimination at institutions of higher education receiving federal funds, as well as the so-called “Dear Colleague Letter” issued in 2011 by the Department of Education to remind colleges of their obligation, under Title IX, to investigate and resolve reports of sexual misconduct under a strict set of policy guidelines. Indeed, since the release of the “Dear Colleague Letter,” it has been reported that “complaints of sexual assault have increased 88%” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2014), a very positive indication that universities are making it easier for victims of sexual assault to come forward and work with and receive support from campus officials.

President Obama’s aggressive stance regarding this issue is important since it highlights the fact that problems still exist at many universities regarding appropriate approaches to prevention, and the need for timely, rigorous and fair investigative procedures in response to student complaints. Indeed, a number of universities are currently being sued by students under Title IX, claiming failure to investigate adequately their complaints, and failure to protect them from sexual assault - institutions like the University of Connecticut, Amherst College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Yale. These, and many other institutions are working to develop effective education and prevention programs for their students.

One example of a potentially powerful prevention strategy is known as “bystander intervention,” a process by which people observing aggressive behavior intervene in creative ways – from spilling a drink on the aggressor, to suddenly turning on the lights at a party, indeed, anything to stop the often drunken behavior which so often escalates to sexual assault. Exposing young people to such non-threatening approaches to prevention can decrease the incidence of sexual assault and should clearly be part of a university’s overall strategy to deal with this difficult and pervasive issue. But, perhaps most important, university officials must signal clearly that such behavior will not only not be tolerated, but that it will be investigated and dealt with to the full extent of federal policy and applicable law.

Universities like Columbia, the University of Massachusetts, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Connecticut and scores of others are developing educational programs, including bystander training, as well as much improved and much more accessible resources to facilitate the reporting and, once reported, the handling of cases of sexual assault. We can do no less for our young people. We cannot permit our nation’s campuses to become places of fear and intimidation, places where either the alleged victim or the accused feels isolated and without support.

I applaud President Obama’s “...Renewed Call to Action,” and, like many in higher education, I look forward to the clear exposition of best practices to address the prevention of and response to sexual assault he has called for. This renewed focus by the President and relevant government agencies will, I feel, help us make major inroads in addressing this tragic and too frequent occurrence on our nation’s campuses.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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