Federal task force to target campus sexual assaults

President Obama expects recommendations from group within 90 days


Jan. 23--President Obama launched a federal task force on Wednesday to combat sexual assault on college campuses, telling the estimated one in five women who are victims, "I've got your back."

Flanked by senior members of his Cabinet at the White House, Obama said he expected recommendations from the group within 90 days. He credited an "inspiring wave of student-led activism" that has cast a spotlight on the issue in recent years.

Obama called on men to get involved in the fight and "summon the bravery to stand up."

"We've got to keep teaching young men in particular to show women the respect they deserve and to recognize sexual violence and be outraged by it, and to do their part to stop it from happening in the first place," the president said.

The East Room meeting was part of a series of events that the White House has held in the last couple of months to highlight the president's ability to focus attention on specific issues, often by getting groups outside the government to work on them. It's a way of moving forward on policy goals at a time when there's little chance of getting legislation through Congress.

The White House released a report finding that 22 million women and girls in the United States have been sexually assaulted, the majority by men they know.

The report, by the White House Council on Women and Girls, identified college as a particularly risky place for women, noting that campus rapists are often repeat offenders. Obama called on college presidents across the country to do more to prevent the assaults.

Wednesday's announcement was seen as a victory by many college activists, who have organized online in recent years to file federal complaints against administrators.

"Having Obama come forward in such a public way is demanding a public shift," said Alexandra Brodsky, a law student at Yale University who co-filed a Title IX complaint against the school in 2011.

"With one report, one public statement, and the power of his office, President Obama just changed the course of sexual violence on campus," said Caroline Heldman, a politics professor at Occidental College -- Obama's alma mater -- who has helped student activists organize.

"We have a long way to go in this struggle, but campus administrators will no longer be able to drag their feet, retaliate against survivors and enact superficial instead of actual changes," she said.

The presidential spotlight comes amid a significant rise in federal complaints filed by students across the country under Title IX, an anti-discrimination law that requires impartial investigations of assault allegations, and the Clery Act, which mandates accurate reporting of campus crimes.

There were 30 Title IX complaints involving sexual violence in 2013, up from 11 in 2009, according to the Department of Education, which enforces the law.

In California, students have filed federal complaints against USC, Occidental College and UC Berkeley alleging the schools discouraged victims from reporting their assaults and bungled the investigations required by the anti-discrimination law. Administrators have been more focused on protecting their public images than their students, the complaints say.

In September, Occidental came to a monetary settlement with at least 10 women who were part of the federal complaint.

State legislators have proposed new reporting laws for public campuses. In November, state auditors launched a review of four California campuses: San Diego State University, Cal State Chico, UCLA and UC Berkeley. Amid the scrutiny, evidence has mounted that colleges have failed to comply with the federal laws.

Last fall, USC and Occidental acknowledged they had neglected to report dozens of sexual assaults in their annual crime reports in 2010 and 2011.

In December, a Times review found an additional two dozen or more sexual assaults that Occidental failed to report in 2012, a likely violation of the Clery Act.

As Obama spoke, UC Berkeley junior Sofie Karasek was telling a San Francisco meeting of the UC regents about her sexual assault at an off-campus event in 2012.

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