Gov. McAuliffe forms task force to combat sexual violence at Virginia colleges

August 21, 2014

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe formed a task force to combat sexual violence at the state’s colleges and universities, addressing a problem that has commanded attention this year in Washington and on campuses nationwide.

On Thursday in Richmond, McAuliffe (D) announced the task force and released a declaration signed by himself, state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) and 17 public higher education leaders pledging numerous steps to prevent sexual violence and ensure prompt and fair resolution when cases arise.

“Listen, I want Virginia to be out front on this issue,” McAuliffe said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “It’s a nationwide issue. We can and must do a lot better.” As a father of five, McAuliffe said, he is keenly aware of the stakes. He has a son at the U.S. Naval Academy and a daughter at Wake Forest University.

McAuliffe’s actions echo in part what President Obama has done this year. A White House task force in April recommended that colleges survey students about sexual assault and other campus safety issues and take a variety of steps in a broad campaign to prevent sexual misconduct.

The joint declaration from Virginia leaders embraces “bystander intervention,” a prevention method that aims to encourage students who witness a troublesome situation at a late-night party or elsewhere to step in before an offense occurs. Obama’s task force also endorsed this tactic.

“I want Virginia to be out front on this issue,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a father of five, says. “It’s a nationwide issue. We can and must do a lot better.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Nationally, campus sex assault has become an urgent issue as students, who in previous generations might have remained silent about possible offenses, are stepping forward to report them. From 2009 to 2012, federal data show, reports of forcible sex offenses on college campuses rose 50 percent.

In addition, the federal government is investigating 76 schools to see whether their handling of sexual violent reports complies with antidiscrimination law. Among them are Catholic University in the District, and Johns Hopkins, Frostburg State and Morgan State universities in Maryland.

Four are in Virginia: the University of Virginia (a case opened in June 2011); the College of William and Mary (April 18); James Madison University (June 4) and the University of Richmond (June 12).

Emily Renda, 22, who graduated this year from U-Va., is an advocate for sexual violence prevention who introduced McAuliffe at a news media event Thursday outside the state Capitol. Now working as an intern for the public flagship university in Charlottesville, Renda said her activism is driven in part by her experience as a survivor of a sexual assault that occurred when she was a first-year student in 2010.

Renda said she hopes the Virginia initiative helps colleges identify the best ways to prevent a form of violence that affects many undergraduate women, as well as some men. “It’s really a recognition,” she said, that the prevalence of campus sexual assault is “absolutely unacceptable.”

Through an executive order, McAuliffe established the Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence. To be chaired by the attorney general, the group of up to 30 members will include top state officials and representatives from higher education, law enforcement and other relevant fields and will provide a final report by June 1.

The task force, according to the order, is charged with producing recommendations for “best practices” on various topics. Among them: how campuses should respond to sexual violence; how schools and law enforcement agencies can develop closer relationships; how sexual violence complaints should be investigated and resolved; how students, faculty and staff members should be trained; and how reporting of incidents can be encouraged.

The joint declaration, signed by leaders of four-year universities and the community college system, states that Herring’s office will work with schools to conduct “a top-to-bottom review” of sexual misconduct and nondiscrimination policies. The college and university leaders pledge to “vigorously enforce” sexual violence policies and encourage the reporting of incidents. And they plan to “fully participate” in the task force’s work, it said.

“For all of us, this is a time to come together, to share best practices, to make clear that we all take this issue very seriously,” said Jonathan R. Alger, president of James Madison University. He said the freshmen now gathering at the school in Harrisonburg are getting the message that they must not be bystanders to sexual assault.

William and Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III also praised the initiative. “It’s good that this will be a collaborative effort in Virginia involving all our institutions of higher education,” he said. “William and Mary is squarely focused on the effort.”

What seems notable about the initiative is not necessarily the various ideas behind it, which have surfaced elsewhere, but the pledge of teamwork. Often university officials weren’t consulting enough with counterparts elsewhere on sex assault questions, McAuliffe said. “There was no coordination of best practices,” the governor said. Now “there will be.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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