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Seeking to end rape on campus, White House launches ‘It’s On Us’

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The White House launched an ambitious branding campaign Friday aimed at ending sexual assaults on college campuses, in part by enlisting the support of major college sports leagues and prominent celebrities.

President Obama and Vice President Biden launched the initiative, called "It's On Us," at an event in the White House's East Room. Lilly Jay, who introduced Biden and spoke in stark personal terms about what it meant to be raped as a student at Amherst and try to "reclaim college."

"Recalling rape always hurts," she said, adding that having "allies" decry sexual assault makes things easier. "They help carry the heavy truth that colleges can, and should, be safer."

Both Obama and Biden emphasized that men needed to join the effort to make sexual assault socially unacceptable.

"This is not your fight alone. This is on all of us, every one of us, to fight campus sexual assault," the president said. "You are not alone. And we have your back and we are going to organize campus by campus, city by city, state by state. The entire country is going to make sure that we understand what this is about and that we’re going to put a stop to it."

Biden, who will hold a roundtable discussion on domestic violence Friday afternoon in Denver, addressed part of his remarks directly to America's men, declaring, "So step up, you guys. Speak out."

"It’s on all of us to change the culture that asks the wrong questions, and our culture still asks the wrong questions," Biden said, his voice growing louder as he got more emotional. "It is never the right question for a woman to ask, 'What did I do?' Never. Get this straight: never is it appropriate for a woman to ask, 'What did I do?' The question is, 'Why was that done to me, and will someone do something about it?'" 

One in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, according to studies, many of them during their first year by someone they know. The first 15 weeks of college can be the riskiest; the group Futures Without Violence just launched "The Other Freshman 15," a letter-writing campaign aimed at getting college and university officials to address the issue.

Lonna Davis, who directs the group's children and youth program and attended Friday's event, said the White House was taking the right approach with men "to invite them, and not indict them, into the conversation, which is exactly what we need."

As part of the administration's new effort, the Justice Department Office on Violence Against Women will also award more than $6 million to 18 colleges with grants to develop comprehensive campus sexual assault prevention and response programs.

Student leaders from nearly 200 college colleges and universities across the United States have agreed to participate in the campaign, which is being done in coordination with Generation Progress, a division of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. It will have its own brand and logo, which can be adapted for individual campuses.

Several prominent celebrities will participate in public service announcements aimed at enlisting public support for the campaign, administration officials said, including Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love and actors Jon Hamm and Connie Britton. A slew of other organizations including the NCAA, Big Ten, Atlantic 10, U.S. Olympic Committee, Viacom, Tumblr, the American Association of University Women and Electronic Arts, a leading video gaming firm, have also endorsed the initiative and will feature it prominently in online advertising and in other venues.

The campaign came out of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which issued a set of findings in April on how to prevent rape on campus. The task force conducted focus groups with a broad range of groups, including members of Greek organizations as well as student leaders, in crafting its strategy.

Calling campus rape "an affront to our basic humanity," Obama said everyone from the "the captain of the basketball team" to the "drum major and the band" to stop it.

"As far as we’ve come, the fact is that from sports leagues to pop culture to politics, our society still does not sufficiently value women," he said. "And this is a personal priority, not -- not just as a president, obviously, not just as a husband and a father of two extraordinary girls, but as an American who believes that our nation’s success depends on how we value and defend the rights of women and girls."