Obama targets college sexual assault epidemic
WASHINGTON - President Obama shone a light Wednesday on a college sexual-assault epidemic that is often shrouded in secrecy, with victims fearing stigma, police poorly trained to investigate, and universities reluctant to disclose the violence.
A White House report highlights a stunning prevalence of rape on college campuses, with 1 in 5 female students assaulted while only 1 in 8 student victims report it.
"No one is more at risk of being raped or sexually assaulted than women at our nation's colleges and universities," said the report by the White House Council on Women and Girls.
Nearly 22 million American women and 1.6 million men have been raped in their lifetimes, according to the report. It chronicled the devastating effects, including depression, substance abuse, and a wide range of physical ailments such as chronic pain and diabetes.
The report said campus sexual assaults are fueled by drinking and drug use that can incapacitate victims, often at student parties at the hands of someone they know.
Perpetrators often are serial offenders. One study cited by the report found that 7 percent of college men admitted to attempting rape, and 63 percent of those men admitted to multiple offenses, averaging six rapes each.
Obama, who has overseen a military that has grappled with its sexual-assault crisis, spoke out against the crime as "an affront on our basic decency and humanity." He then signed a memorandum creating a task force to respond to campus rapes.
Obama said that he was speaking out as president and as a father of two daughters, and that men must express outrage to stop the crime.
"We need to encourage young people, men and women, to realize that sexual assault is simply unacceptable," Obama said. "And they're going to have to summon the bravery to stand up and say so, especially when the social pressure to keep quiet or to go along can be very intense."
Obama gave the task force, composed of administration officials, 90 days to come up with recommendations for colleges to prevent and respond to the crime, increase public awareness of each school's track record, and enhance coordination among federal agencies to hold schools accountable if they don't confront the problem.
Swarthmore College is one of several colleges nationally under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights for its handling of sexual-assault cases. The college in July announced wide-ranging changes - including the hiring of an advocate for victims of sexual assault. The announcement followed complaints by students Mia Ferguson and Hope Brinn that the college has created a sexually hostile environment by failing to properly handle cases of sexual harassment and violence.
Ferguson and Brinn were among a group who filed two complaints alleging the college violated the Clery Act, which requires colleges to report crime on campus and another federal regulation, known as Title IX, that prohibits sexual discrimination. The civil rights office is investigating the Title IX complaint.
The complaints at Swarthmore are part of a national movement in which women are speaking out about their colleges' handling of sexual assaults. The Education Department has also opened investigations at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Records obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act illustrate a continuing problem for colleges in investigating crime. The documents include anonymous complaints sent to the Education Department, often alleging universities have not accurately reported on-campus crime or appropriately punished assailants as required under federal law.
A former Amherst College student, Angie Epifano, has accused the school of trivializing her report of being raped in a dorm room in 2011. She said school counselors questioned whether she was really raped, refused her request to change dorms, discouraged her from pressing charges, and had police take her to a psychiatric ward. She withdrew from Amherst, while her alleged attacker graduated.
Staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article.