Personal conviction and outside pressure led to White House sexual assault push

When the White House announced an effort to help prevent sexual assault on campuses nationwide on Tuesday, Vice President Biden gave a special shout-out to a number of administration officials and staff who he said have taken up "the passion of my life," preventing violence against women.


Vice President Joe Biden hugs Madeleine Smith after he spoke about the release of the First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, Tuesday, April 29, 2014, in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. (AP Photo)

The White House's push to make campuses do more to combat sexual assault stemmed from two places: a personal desire from Biden and many other staffers, many of whom have college-aged children, and pressure from campus groups who have been bringing the issue into the spotlight and filling lawsuits against their colleges and universities.

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault issued a 20-page report calling for, among other things, colleges to survey students about sexual assault. It is part of a prevention campaign that also includes a public service announcement from President Obama and a Web site to support survivors.

Many officials spoke in starkly personal terms. Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama's chief of staff and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, mentioned her two children. Biden was introduced by a Harvard University graduate who was raped by a fellow student and Biden said the woman is about the same age as his daughter. Biden also said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan feels the issue "in his bones."

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole also referenced his children, a daughter who graduated from college a few years ago and a son who will do so soon.

"This is really personal," Tchen said. "This is personal to all of us and really hits home.”

But officials also gave credit to a group of advocates who have worked to bring awareness of the numbers of sexual assaults that occur on campus each year -  20 percent of female students are a victim of sexual assault - and have been pressing the issues both on campus and in the highest levels of government.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave credit to student activists who have been shining a spotlight on the issue, telling a group that stood on a plaza outside the Department of Education last year with "boxes and boxes" of petitions that influenced thinking at the department.

“This change has been long in coming but now I think it’s unstoppable and I don’t say this lightly,” Duncan said. "Without your collective leadership, this sea change simply would not be happening and this White House task force report we hope is another step in the right direction.”

Among the students in the audience Tuesday was Dana Bolger, 23, of Amherst College who helped start KnowYourIX, a group organized by students like herself who she said were sexually assaulted and then mistreated by college administrators.

She was outside that Department of Education last summer protesting, and the goal of the group she co-founded is to educate students about their rights under Title IX. The administration recently said that Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities, also protects victims of sexual assault.

"We are really pleased to see President Obama highlight a lot of our asks, and we are really happy that in the report a number of those asks have been met," Bolger said. "This is strong, it could be stronger, there is a glaring absence in the report about enforcement. I hope that legislators will step in an propose fines and send a strong message that violations will not be tolerated."

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, said much credit must go to students who worked to have attention paid to the issue of sexual assault.

"I think a lot of the credit needs to be student activists who were out there talking about this, empowering one another," Kiss said. "What we’ve seen is a whole lot of men and women who have said this is what my name is and this is where I go to school, and really supporting one another through that process."

The remarks by Biden, who sponsored the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, were simultaneously quiet and forceful, especially when he spoke about the fact that no man has a right to raise a hand to a woman. He recalled growing up in Scranton, Pa., where violence against women was not tolerated. “If a man raised his hand to a woman you had a job to kick the living crap out of him,” Biden said. "I realize that’s not very presidential or vice presidential, but it’s something that every man should begin to understand.”

In an interview, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, said the approach to women's issues has been informed by his upbringing and his role as a father, and that those sentiments and emotions were shared widely in the administration and on the task force.

"There is nothing like being the parent of daughters to give men and women a unique appreciation for how devastating this crime can be, it doesn’t take a parent a millisecond to imagine how they would feel if it happened to their daughter," said Jarrett, who also chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls.  "The only lens I see this through is from the perspective of those students on college campuses and as a mom who will never forget the day I dropped off my daughter at college and I realized that an institution was responsible for her and not me, and it’s a feeling all parents have. And it's terrifying. And deeply personal for parents."

Three years ago, Obama told presidents of colleges and universities that sexual assault had become an "epidemic" on campuses. According to the Department of Education, it has received 123 Title IX complaints that include allegations of sexual assault since October 2008.

Students have also been filing lawsuits against their colleges and universities. Last week, 23 Columbia University and Barnard College students filed a  lawsuit against the schools, alleging that they allow alleged perpetrators of sexual assault to remain on campus. Four women last year filed a federal sex discrimination suit against the University of Connecticut, accusing it of mishandling sexual assault cases. A Title IX lawsuit was brought against Northwestern University, alleging the school was negligent in how it handled the case of a student who said she was sexually assaulted by a tenured professor.

In January, Obama convened a panel with representatives from the departments of justice, education, defense and health and human services to look into how to combat the issue after a number of high-profile assaults on campuses, including Yale University, Amherst College in Massachusetts and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. The president of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire this month vowed to end "extreme behavior" on the campus.

Duncan said that the statistics -- that only 13 percent of women who were raped on campus report the crime -- underscore how much a culture needs to change.

“We have to put an end to rape-permissive cultures and campus cultures that tolerate sexual assault," he said. "Sexual violence as we all know is not just a crime. It’s a civil rights issue.”

Cole said the Department of Justice will be treating sexual assault on campus as a civil rights issue.

But, the push for change will not stop.

Students and advocates, who met with Sen. Claire McCaskill (R-Mo.) Tuesday, are advocating for more change. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) will be introducing legislation that calls for more vigorous enforcement of campus sexual assault next month, her spokesman said.

"My biggest fear right now is that everyone will say, oh, there's a video about preventing sexual violence and so we are done. Partial victories make it easy to lose political will," said Alexandra Brodsky, who was part of a 2011 complaint against Yale University for violation of Title IX and is also a co-founder of KnowYourIX.  "There is still a lot to be done and we might need to look to a different branch to make that happen."

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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