Obama White House Issues Final Call On Combating Campus Rape

Vice President Joe Biden headlined the last event of the administration as a new report leaves off with some thoughts on what work is left to be done.

The Obama White House held its final event on addressing campus rape Thursday and released a guide outlining best practices for how college presidents should approach the issue of sexual assault.

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault also issued its final report that lays out both the progress made during President Obama's tenure, and some final notes about work left undone.

Staff for Vice President Joe Biden, who closed out the Washington DC summit, told BuzzFeed News it’s his last event on campus sexual assault in his current role, but confirmed that he will stay involved with the It’s On Us campaign after he leaves the White House.

Biden revealed during his closing remarks that he will set up a foundation after he leaves the White House to continue work on ending sexual assault, but didn't disclose specifics.

“I'm no longer going to be vice president, but I'm going to be associated with several major universities and have a significant staff," Biden told the audience. "I'm going to set up a foundation, to devote the rest of my life to dealing with violence against women."

The task force's final report also highlights how the administration's efforts will continue to reverberate for years to come, noting that two dozen federally-funded research projects remain ongoing, and the results are expected to trickle out over the next four years.

The Obama administration made addressing sexual violence, especially on college campuses, a hallmark of its domestic agenda. Many advocates credit that to the influence of Biden, the original sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act, who arranged to have the first White House adviser on violence against women.

The task force launched in 2014 amid increased student activism over claims that colleges and universities were mishandling sexual assault cases in violation of the gender equity law Title IX. Currently, the US Department of Education has 300 investigations open at 221 colleges and universities due to allegations of Title IX violations in responding to sexual violence.

Thursday’s summit featured brief speeches from administration officials recapping the work done, and panels about stopping the violence that include students, local advocates, staff from the NCAA, and Jennifer Robinson, the creator of the MTV’s Sweet/Vicious, a TV show that garnered attention in 2016 for its portrayal of vigilantes going after campus rapists.

Meanwhile, the final guide released Thursday by the Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault focused on best practices for college presidents. The guide instructs them to conduct campus climate surveys, set up their own task forces to get feedback from their communities, and suggests they launch prevention campaigns, like It’s On Us. According to the White House, since Biden and Obama launched It’s On Us in September 2014, students have held 2,000 events on more than 500 college campuses nationwide in connection with the campaign.

Biden said in a letter to college presidents Thursday that survivors and activists have spoken up, but when it comes to leaders of universities, "we haven’t seen enough of you."

The involvement of Obama and Biden gave cover for college administrators to launch initiatives to address sexual assault, something they may have been reticent to otherwise publicize, said Sarah McMahon, the associate director of the Center on Violence Against and Women at Rutgers University.

“I think their absence will be missed,” she said.

Thursday’s summit comes as advocates behind-the-scenes are expressing increased anxiety over how President-elect Donald Trump will handle the issue. Trump has not offered any insight on how his administration will address sexual assault, except for a brief comment at a forum that the military’s process of investigating incidents needed reform.

“I’m working very hard with this incoming administration to convince them understand that this is, in a sense, the civil rights issue of our time, the human rights issue of our time," Biden said at the summit. He also encouraged attendees to continue "to hold their universities responsible" in addressing sexual violence.

If there is less federal action addressing campus rape, McMahon said, “then the job is going to be clear for those working in the field as activists, and those already working on college campuses, to make sure they advocate more loudly.”

Some Republican members of Congress are expected to push the Trump administration to scale back the aggressive federal interventions on Title IX sexual violence issues.

Most recently, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said the Trump administration should rescind a 2011 letter from the Education Department telling schools to use the preponderance of the evidence standard, meaning more likely than not, when adjudicating sexual assault cases. Critics have said this standard is too low because it only requires more than 50% certainty of someone’s guilt, while proponents note it’s commonly used in civil rights statutes.

The final White House task force report released Thursday addresses how accused students should be treated.

"A balanced and fair process that provides the same opportunities for both parties will lead to sound and reasonable decisions," the report states. "Schools must strike the correct balance between the rights of the accused and the rights of everyone else on campus, including the complainant and every other student who might be at risk of harm."

Separately, the guide for college chancellors and presidents states that campus investigations should give accusers and accused the same opportunity to present witnesses and evidence, and “equal access to lawyers, other advocates, or support persons.”

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary, has not weighed in on how schools should deal with sexual violence. Many experts predict it ultimately could matter more on who gets selected for assistant secretary for civil rights, who would be in charge of investigating Title IX violations.

The DOJ’s Office of Violence Against Women is currently running an online clearinghouse of resources and webinars for addressing rape on campus at ChangingOurCampus.org. The website was established as part of the White House college sexual assault task force, and it’s unclear whether the page will be maintained in the Trump administration.

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