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Presidential push combats campus sexual assault

Tuesday - 4/29/2014, 3:08pm  ET

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American University students are demanding sexual assault education and prevention programs, as well as consequences for those who engage in sexual misconduct. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is cracking down on an issue that affects thousands of college women throughout the country: sexual assault.

One in five women is sexually assaulted during her college years, and a new report issued Tuesday by a White House task force calls for more attention to the issue, putting many colleges and universities in the hot seat.

The group recommends schools identify trained, confidential victim's advocates and conduct surveys to assess the frequency of sexual assault on their campuses. The task force says the Justice Department will help develop training programs in trauma care for school officers and will establish greater transparency on the issue with a new website, notalone.gov.

Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of "Crazy Love," a New York Times bestselling memoir on domestic abuse, says the presidential push to prevent sexual abuse on college campuses is critical to helping alleviate the national problem.

"I think more people are appalled by the fact that on college campuses, rape is so common and that universities aren't doing more to stop it," Morgan Steiner says.

American University students -- under the name "No More Silence" -- have earned more than 2,000 signatures for an online petition demanding sexual assault education and prevention programs, as well as consequences for those who engage in sexual misconduct.

The petition was posted after documents containing conversations about raping women from suspected members of Epsilon Iota fraternity were leaked and circulated through the campus.

"We share your outrage and concern over the content of the emails recently released and the behavior they describe," says Gail Short Hanson, vice president of campus life at American University, in a memorandum released April 29.

"Assault, sexual assault, bullying, underage and binge drinking, illicit drug use, misogyny, homophobia, and racism are antithetical to our values. They will not be tolerated."

Short Hanson says the university is investigating the allegations and reviewing its sexual assault education and training programs.

One of the biggest problems with campus sexual assaults is the way reports of abuse are handled, Morgan Steiner says.

"We have federal laws that require colleges to report crime and campus rape, but they're very rarely enforced, so enforcement is key," she says.

"The schools, themselves, are not prosecuting the rapists and are not taking action, which is what I think is causing so much outrage and betrayal," she says.

The task force says in too many cases, survivors of sexual violence are "not at the heart of an institution's response," adding many victims don't have a safe or confidential place to turn after an assault. Currently, only 12 percent of college women attacked report it to police.

Confidentiality is another primary concern for victims -- especially the two-thirds of assault victims who know their attackers.

"I think what is so sad is that victims talk about going back to school, having been traumatized and having to see their rapist on a regular basis," Morgan Steiner says.

"Twenty percent of college women are raped -- that's much higher than the general population, and the thing that's so sad is that they don't report it because they're afraid of being humiliated or punished by reporting it."

In addition to recommending schools have a victim advocate, the task force provides schools a sample reporting and confidentiality protocol to make it clear to students where to report a crime and what to expect from the university.

Training bystanders, which the White House task force recommends, is another important step toward tackling sexual assault on college campuses.

"Some of the rapes happen in front of other people or in a dorm room where other people can see it happening, or they see it unfolding in the early stages. So it's important to get the whole community involved to stop it," Morgan Steiner says.

To help colleges and universities, the task force will provide a checklist for schools to use in drafting or reevaluating sexual misconduct policies.

"I think it's a terrible problem and I'm glad that such a difficult subject is getting so much attention because that's how change is going to happen," Morgan Steiner says.

WTOP's Rachel Nania, Megan Cloherty and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

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