By Shoham Geva, Summer Managing News Editor
Published April 29, 2014
A White House task force studying sexual assault prevention on college campuses released the results of its research and subsequent policy recommendations Tuesday as part of an ongoing effort to reduce what has become a pervasive issue at universities across the country.
For the University, which is currently under investigation for Title IX violations by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights following a complaint about the way allegations of sexual misconduct against Brendan Gibbons, a former University football player, were handled, the guidelines are particularly relevant. One of the overall stated purposes of the release was to help universities better comply with federal regulations, specifically Title IX, in the way they address sexual assault.
In a press release, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the clarifications were long overdue.
“For far too long, the incentives to prevent and respond to sexual violence have gone in the wrong direction at schools and on college campuses,” he said in the release. “As interpreted and enforced by the department, Title IX and other federal laws are changing these incentives to put an end to rape-permissive cultures and campus cultures that tolerate sexual assault.”
The task force, which was formed by President Obama in January as part of a larger initiative to address issues of sexual violence, laid out four main objectives in the plan. Its recommendations come after months of research and “listening sessions” the group conducted with over 2,000 stakeholders on the issue, including students, survivors, members of alumni associations, parent groups, and administrators across the country.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said Tuesday that the University is fully in support of the plan, and already has adopted most of the guidelines it suggests. Those that have not been adopted will be in place next fall, he said.
The report first called on schools to do voluntary surveys of campus climate surrounding sexual assault in the coming year. It said that as of right now, the problem is chronically underreported on most campuses, which means schools might have a distorted view of the problem.
Secondly, the report encouraged the adoption of bystander intervention training programs for students, which research from the Center for Disease Control found most effective.
“The college years are formative for many students,” the report read. “If we implement effective prevention programs, today’s students will leave college knowing that sexual assault is simply unacceptable. And that, in itself, can create a sea change.”
The report’s third objective was to improve the resources administrators have to deal with the issue. It encouraged schools to adopt confidentiality policies for reporting sexual assault cases, and also announced the development of special training programs for staff involved in the investigation of sexual assault cases through the Justice Department.
Lastly, the report launched the new website notalone.gov, that will list whether schools are in compliance with federal regulations and provide instructions on filing Title IX complaints.
Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, who gave input to the taskforce, said while she doesn’t expect to immediately see a dramatic national decline in incidences of sexual assault as a result of the report, it's an important first step.
“One of the very hopeful aspects of the recommendations coming out of the White House is that they are encouraging more research, more evaluation, and more assessment of approaches, so that there are simply more tools available for colleges and universities, and more current data on what works for a campus population than we had previously,” she said.
Right now, the guidelines are advisory. However, following taskforce reports, efforts are typically made to transform their recommendations into something more legally binding. As of right now, according to the report, the administration's most prominent goal is to make the suggested campus surveys mandatory by 2016, something Fitzgerald and Rider-Milkovich confirmed that the University is already working on having in place by next fall.
Rider-Milkovich said the alignment of the guidelines with current or forthcoming University policy was a validation of the approaches that the University has taken in the past few years, despite the current Title IX investigation.
“I think the outcome of the investigation will demonstrate that we are doing what we should be doing in this very important area,” Rider-Milkovich said. “We have a research informed, evidence based, best practice approach to our sexual response prevention and response effort and the fact that the White House recommendation aligns so clearly with what we are already doing at Michigan, I believe, is even more affirmation that we are doing this work extremely well.”
Taylor Norton, campaign director of I Will, a student run initiative which works to raise awareness of sexual assault issues on campus, said the recent focus on the subject nationally and at the University is a good step forward, and that other steps the University has taken, such as its revamped sexual misconduct policies, are also positive.
However, she said she felt that as evidenced by the way the University handled the sexual misconduct case against Gibbons, there's still some work to be done.
"It was a great opportunity for them to say, look, this policy works; we've now seen one case all the way through it to the most extreme consequence that it can have under this policy, and that is a victory for the survivor and for anybody affiliated, and for the process," she said. "And I think that would have been a great way for the University to stand up and say that we are a model and I was really bummed out that they didn't take that opportunity."
Daily Summer News Editor Allana Akhtar contributed to this report