Shortly after President Obama announced plans Wednesday to form a task force targeting sexual assaults on college campuses, Dana Bolger’s cellphone rang.
It was Tina Tchen, first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, calling to congratulate Bolger and thank her for her work. Tchen’s words echoed the president’s, which may not have been directly addressed to Bolger but spoke to her experience.
“We need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted — you are not alone. You will never be alone,” Obama said, during a news conference where he signed the memorandum launching the initiative, which will press colleges and universities to take steps to prevent sexual assaults and to improve the way it responds to such attacks.
A White House report released at Wednesday’s news conference included a statistic that Bolger and many of her friends have already lived: One in five women are sexually assaulted at college.
“When I think back to where I was two years ago, when I’d left college after being raped and stalked, I could have never imagined what I’d be seeing today and what I’d be a part of,” Bolger, 22, said after her brief phone conversation with Tchen. “I don’t quite have the words to describe it.”
In 2012, when Bolger created It Happens Here, an online forum for Amherst College survivors of rape, her activism spread far beyond the central-Massachusetts campus. Soon, other harrowing stories started pouring in: Students from private schools such as Wesleyan University in Connecticut, public schools such as the University of North Carolina and many other institutions said that when they reported their accounts of sexual assaults, school administrators seemed more concerned with the image of the school than with investigating the complaints and offering assistance.
“Institutions of higher education have had a perverse incentive to suppress knowledge of sexual assault on campus and to mishandle them,” said Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College. “When the majority of schools are silent, any given school is seen as a unique source of sexual violence, which isn’t true.”
During the spring of 2013, Bolger partnered with a Yale student activist, Alexandra Brodsky, and other students to co-found Know Your IX, an organization dedicated to educating students about their rights and protections against sexual harassment and sexual violence under the federal Title IX Act. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at educational institutions that receive federal money.
Reaching out to schools nationwide, Know Your IX launched a campaign called Ed Act Now to mobilize students who felt their administration’s sexual assault policy discouraged the filing of Title IX complaints. According to the Department of Education, 95 percent of the office’s record-breaking 9,950 civil rights cases in 2013 — 30 of them directly regarding Title IX and sexual assault — were resolved within 180 days of receipt.
After Bolger and her classmates went public with their stories in 2012, Amherst’s president, Carolyn Martin, addressed the issue swiftly, hiring a consultant to review and revise the college’s sexual assault policies. But not all schools are quick to respond.
It took four years for Tufts University, 90 miles east of Amherst, to overhaul its sexual assault policy into what is now a 17-page document.
To former Tufts student Wagatwe Sara Wanjuki, 27, who began organizing at Tufts a year after she filed a complaint of rape in 2008, an effective policy requires the school administration’s vigilance even after significant changes have been made.
“I know a current student who had a less-than-ideal situation with the policy last year, and the same administrators are still there,” Wanjuki said. “It’s one thing to have an effective policy on paper, but it needs to be practiced.”
In the years after Wanjuki and Bolger’s assaults, more cases surfaced at colleges and high schools. The obvious inconsistencies among school policies underscored administrators’ uncertainty over how to treat such cases. In its memo Wednesday, the White House called colleges’ compliance with federal law “uneven, and in too many cases, inadequate.”
In cases of campus domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, federal law stipulates that schools must provide clear sexual assault policies and ongoing resources for students. These mandates are part of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which in January 2013 updated a statute requiring federally funded schools to disclose incidents of crime to the Department of Education.
After the attention surrounding of several high-profile rape allegations, including incidents at Florida State University and in Steubenville, Ohio, Obama’s support on the issue delighted Bolger, whose organization may have played an indirect role in the crafting of the policy.
“We were thrilled to see that four out of five objectives for Obama’s new task force were identical to our demands last summer,” said Bolger, referencing the group’s Ed Act Now campaign.
The move was not surprising to Angela Hattery, a professor of women and gender studies at George Mason University, who says the president and his administration have shown sensitivity to women’s issues. She noted Vice President Biden’s involvement in pushing for the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. She also said it should not be overlooked that the president’s daughters, Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, are nearing the age group — 16 to 24 — when women are most susceptible to sexual assault.
“Practically speaking, he’s got daughters going to college soon,” Hattery said. “Not to say men can’t be victims as well, but that’s when it hits close to home for them. When the issue is more personalized, that’s when awareness is heightened.”
Hattery, who has conducted a college survey on rape in different contexts, found that women, whether they know a rape victim or not, tend to be equally critical of rape scenarios. But men who know a victim are far more of critical of rape scenarios than those who don’t know a victim.
“Women are warned of rape and sexual assault by family, police, educators, but men don’t hear about it as much,” Hattery said. “When they know someone who has been affected, their growth is dramatic.”
In his remarks Wednesday, Obama called on men to take responsibility for reducing sexual violence.
“We’ve got to keep teaching young men, in particular, to show women the respect they deserve and to recognize sexual violence and be outraged by it and to do their part to stop it from happening in the first place,” the president said.
“I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women,” he said. “And that starts before they get to college.”
The president also made the task force the subject of his weekly address. The task force will include the attorney general, the secretary of education and other Cabinet members and agency heads. They will have 90 days to develop recommendations for curbing campus sexual assaults and responding better to attacks. The group must report back to the president in one year on progress toward implementing its recommendations.
Bolger hopes the task force will listen to groups like those founded by her and other survivors.
“We’re the ones on the ground, the ones who have experienced violence from our classmates and betrayal from our schools, who have spent countless hours learning the law and talking to advocates,” she said. “We need to be at the table making decisions that will affect our lives.”