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Ending Sexual Violence -- Campuses Are Part of the Solution

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September 2009 marked the 15 year anniversary of President Bill Clinton signing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) into law. As the date approached, it became clear that we needed to do more than a press release or event. This was a moment in time for the Department of Justice to send a clear signal that the issue of violence against women is a priority.

That is why we at the department launched a year-long initiative to raise public awareness, build stronger coalitions among federal, state, local and tribal communities, and redouble efforts to end sexual assault, domestic and dating violence, and stalking for men, women and children across the country.

Far too many communities in the United States and around the world are affected by this issue and it must stop. One of the messages that we have sought to carry throughout the 15th anniversary of VAWA is that sexual and domestic violence are not just issues for the victim, or his or her family. They are everyone's problem. And anyone dealing with sexual violence on a college campus today knows that this is a reality.

A 2000 report by the National Institute of Justice on the extent of sexual assault among college women found evidence that over the course of a college career one in four women will be raped. Ninety percent of campus victims in the study knew their rapists. Almost 60 percent of the rapes that occurred on campus took place in the victim's residence, 31 percent occurred in other living quarters on campus, and 10.3 percent took place in a fraternity. The majority of rapes on college campuses involve alcohol and drug use by one or both parties, and as many as 80 percent of assailants describe using alcohol and drugs as a tool to overcome their victims.

We know that students who are victimized by other students often face additional challenges in a campus environment. For example, a victim of dating violence, domestic violence, or sexual assault may continue to live in danger if the perpetrator resides in the same dormitory or attends the same classes. On smaller campuses, a victim may wish to remain anonymous but may find this to be virtually impossible in such a small environment. Similarly, stalking victims may find it difficult to escape their tormentors, because the stalker may have a seemingly "legitimate" reason for remaining in contact with or in proximity to the victim, like studying in the library.

The fear and anguish suffered by rape victims may continue if they attend the same classes or live in the same dormitory as the perpetrator. In other cases, a victim may be harassed by classmates or by a perpetrator's. A victim may feel compelled to remain silent and not report what has happened. Even changing class schedules or living arrangements may not eliminate the threat of encountering the perpetrator on campus.

Unlike in other communities, there are vast differences in the ways crimes committed on campuses are reported, investigated, prosecuted and resolved. If a crime is investigated by the campus judicial system, it may never be reported to local police, and the sanctions imposed on a perpetrator may be far more lenient than the law would allow. Students found "responsible" for alleged sexual assaults on campuses often face little or no punishment, while their victims' lives are frequently turned upside down. Many times, victims drop out of school, while students found culpable go on to graduate.

This is why, as we set out to raise awareness this year and highlight best practices among federal, state, local and tribal coalitions, a campus tour was at the top of our list. In fact, during the month of March 2010, nine leaders in the department -- including myself -- visited 11 schools across the country.

The visits to public, private and faith-based institutions, and a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), included a series of events with students, peer educators, faculty, campus leadership, and law enforcement and community partners. These meetings focused not just on the issues around sexual violence but on the solutions -- engaging men and women, faculty and campus leadership, as well as community organizations and local law enforcement.

Many of these campuses are recipients of the department's Office on Violence Against Women's "Grants to Reduce Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking on Campus Program." The program is intended to develop and strengthen victim services in cases involving domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking on campuses. Grants are designed to encourage colleges and universities to adopt comprehensive, coordinated responses to violent crimes against women on campuses, creating partnerships among campus entities and with community-based victim services organizations and criminal and civil justice agencies. For more information on grant programs available to campuses throughout the country, go here.

It cannot be the work of the Department of Justice alone, or the criminal justice system, or state government, or campus leadership, to prevent or bring justice to victims of sexual violence. Leaders at all levels in the public and private sectors and each community must take an active role in defining their response to sexual assault and domestic violence. And no one can be a bystander who sees or hears about an occurrence that they know to be wrong, without taking action. It is all of our responsibility.

We at the Department are committed to this cause and will work with state, local, tribal and campus partners to ensure that all communities are given the resources and support they need. We share a vision where men, women, boys, girls and communities can live in a world without the fear of violence. If we're going to do this, we are going to have to do it together.

Tom Perrelli is the Associate Attorney General of the United States, the third ranking official at the Department of Justice.