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College assault recommendations include new website, surveys

A White House task force's new report includes recommendations to improve sexual assault prevention, reporting, and discipline on college campuses.
T-shirts display messages on the Clothesline Project at Converse College in  Spartanburg, S.C, on Feb. 20, 2014.
T-shirts display messages on the Clothesline Project at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C, on Feb. 20, 2014. The project addresses rape and domestic violence.

There can be “no more turning a blind eye” to sexual assault, Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday as he laid out a slate of recommendations designed to reduce the prevalence of rape and sexual violence at colleges and universities.

After an emotional introduction from Madeliene Smith, a former Harvard University student who spoke of her struggle to get help from the school after being raped there,Biden laid out more details of, the new website that will provide a centralized hub for information about campus safety statistics, legal requirements for schools and resources for assault survivors.

Schools will also soon be required to conduct student surveys to collect data on the prevalence of and attitudes toward sexual assault. The task force's report includes resources for schools to begin conducting the surveys. While the surveys are not currently mandatory, the task force aims to make it a requirement by 2016.

It also includes recommendations for improving awareness and response training on campus, resources to train students in bystander intervention methods,improve on campus disciplinary processes, and make suggestions about how to create reporting policies that protect the confidentiality of survivors.

 According to current estimates, one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, as will one in 33 men. Only 12% of sexual assault victims report their assaults to authorities.

Advocates for reform were generally pleased with the task force's recommendations, although most also noted that this is a first step in a long and difficult process. “The quick actions taken by the White House to combat campus sexual assault are impressive," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a statement. "It is up to Congress now to make the Task Force recommendations mandatory so survivors know we have done all we can to prevent this national epidemic."

In her own statement about the report, New York Democratic Sen. Gillibrand said, "I am pleased the Task Force recommended the important initial step of a mandatory survey, which has consistently been the number one request of student survivors and advocates."

Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal also praised the recommendations and pledged to continue working on reforms.

Support for the task force's report came from both sides of the aisle. Pennsylvania Repbublican Rep. Patrick Meehan told msnbc that will be an essential resource for students and schools alike, and that the renewed attention will increase accountability among school administrations. "It’s not going to give them any excuse for not getting into it with both feet. They know there are expectations and they will be scrutinized, and I think that is important," Meehan said. "I do think that there’s an interest on how best to do it, it may lead to next step to more and better."

The task force’s recommendations, which are not binding, were made after representatives held a series of listening sessions with students, school representatives, victim advocates, and law enforcement officials. Officials said they spoke to more than 2,000 people during these sessions, which took place both in person and online.

Student activists, survivors, and victim advocacy groups were at the White House for Tuesday's press conference, and Gillibrand and McCaskill attended. The two senators spent much of last year debating how best to reform how the military prosecutes sexual violence in the ranks, and they have worked together on campus sexual assault in recent months.

Survivors of sexual assault have filed dozens of complaints in recent years under Title IX, the statute that mandates schools getting federal money treat male and female students equitably, bringing national attention to the ways in which sexual violence can derail the pursuit of higher education.

As complaints are investigated – there have been 33 Title IX complaints filed in the first half of this fiscal year – one of the next questions will be what sort of penalties should be levied against schools that are found to have violated laws. Violations of the Clery Act, which deals with campus safety and the reporting of violent crimes, can lead to fines, but short of cutting off all federal funding to a school, Title IX violations result in agreements designed to improve conditions. No school that has run afoul of Title IX has ever lost funding.

While the issue of better enforcement of current laws could be helped by improved coordination between federal agencies responsible for investigating Title IX and Clery Act complaints, there remains a very limited range of options for enforcing penalties against schools that violate these statutes. A White House official told msnbc, “We intend to look more closely at the enforcement mechanisms available to the Department of Education in our next phase.”