This post is co-authored by Alison D. Kahler
Joe Biden may have just revolutionized campus life as we know it.
Earlier this week, the Vice President launched NotAlone.gov, a new government website providing resources for students and colleges to combat campus sexual assault. He also released a report compiled by a White House task force with recommendations for colleges, kicking off a widespread, multi-year effort to improve student safety on campus.
Overall, this represents a huge leap forward. The White House's backing gives gravitas to the all-consuming problem of campus rape and sexual assault. Especially in an era in which women's health and safety are so often disregarded, Biden's personal support has the potential to bring about a huge cultural change. This move demands that everyone pay attention and take action. Neither those involved in higher education nor the public at large can continue to ignore this issue.
Not Alone Report and the White House Plan
The White House report outlines a series of initial recommendations, with the following goals in mind:
- Identify the scope of the sexual assault problem on college campuses;
- Help prevent campus sexual assault;
- Help schools respond effectively when a student is assaulted;
- Improve and make more transparent the federal government's Title IX review and enforcement efforts.
These goals are all crucial to making colleges safer for students and they come with a clear, if preliminary, plan of action for all schools to follow.
First, because understanding the nature and prevalence of campus rape and sexual assault (most of which goes unreported), is crucial to developing a long-term strategy, the report links to a "toolkit" enabling every college to conduct a Campus Climate Survey assessing where it needs improvement.
Second, the report outlines several preliminary prevention strategies such as bystander education. Special mention is given to the importance of turning men into allies including. A simultaneously released PSA entitled 1 is 2 Many enlists well-known actors in driving home this message. The White House rightfully believes that prevention is everyone’s responsibility, helping to dispel the dangerous myth that the best way to prevent sexual violence is to warn women “just don’t get raped.”
Third, helping schools respond effectively to student assaults will hopefully make the countless stories of botched investigations and disregarded reports a relic of the past. The report urges colleges to create more supportive campus environments for student victims with specially trained staff, develop comprehensive sexual misconduct policies and effective investigative and disciplinary procedures, and partner with community organizations to deliver necessary services for victims.
Fourth, the report promises that the federal government will increase transparency and enforcement under Title IX. In addition to offering clarification regarding what the laws actually say and the precise role of the federal government, the report vows to publicize resources on student safety and schools' responses on NotAlone.gov and other channels. Making all this information clear and widely available lets people know their rights and enables them to get help if they need it.
Although they are great start, the White House's initial efforts are no cure-all. The main problem is this: Does the White House plan have any teeth?
Right now, everything in the report is just a recommendation, not a mandate. Without a way to require colleges to take action it is unclear how much of an impact Biden's efforts will have.
For example, colleges may opt to conduct Campus Climate Surveys and then falsely claim that they are in "ongoing compliance" with federal requirements. Surveys are meaningless on their own; gathering information won't solve anything unless it leads to positive and lasting change.
The report’s recommendations may also be significantly weakened by misguided sections of the well-meaning Campus SaVe Act. Eleventh-hour changes removed Title IX’s requirement that schools address campus assaults in a “prompt and equitable” manner and replaced the federal “preponderance of evidence” standard of proof for sexual assault cases with wildly inconsistent (and often impossibly stringent) state criminal law standards. The resulting contradictions with earlier laws and federal guidances create further opportunity for schools to misstate their progress and delay any real change.
While knowledge is power, it's only half the battle. Biden appears to understand this, but it remains to be seen how effectively his recommendations will be implemented. It's now up to the White House, alumni, administrators, and students to hold schools accountable and make campuses free from discrimination and violence.
Follow James R. Marsh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marshlawfirm