Thursday, May 01, 2014

White House Task Force Report on Campus Sexual Assault Calls for Improved Institutional Response and Government Enforcement

As Kris mentioned in a recent post, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released its first report on Tuesday, announcing recommendations for universities and government agencies on how to challenge the alarming statistic that 1 in 5 women, along with a smaller proportion of men, is sexually assaulted while in college. The report, titled Not Alone, focuses on four main subject areas: assessment, prevention, response, and enforcement.  In this post, I will post some more details on the report’s treatment of the latter two items.  In a follow-up post, I’ll summarize the report’s suggestions for assessment and prevention.   

Regarding universities’ response to sexual assault, the Task Force first addressed the issue of confidentiality.  The report confirmed that university officials can still protect a student’s desire for confidentiality by making clear to a student before she reports a sexual report which university officials can maintain her confidentiality and which may be legally required, in certain circumstances, to divulge information in order to protect the campus as a whole.  To this end, the report includes a model reporting and confidentiality protocol. It also references the guidance document from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, also released Tuesday in a coordinated effort, which confirms that on-campus counselors and victims’ advocates can legally maintain a victim’s confidentiality and not be mandated to report information about sexual violence without the victim’s consent. The report notes other ways institutions can improve their responses to sexual assault like training victims advocates to provide emergency and ongoing support.  Relatedly, it announced that the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women will help train school officials to better address victims’ trauma. 

On the policy side, the Task Force report provides this checklist to assist universities in drafting or evaluating their sexual misconduct policies.  It also addresses some of problems plaguing disciplinary proceedings.  Referencing the Department of Education’s new guidance, the report clarifies that questions about the survivor’s sexual history with anyone other than the alleged perpetrator should not be permitted; that adjudicators should know that the mere fact of a previous consensual sexual relationship does not itself imply consent or preclude a finding of sexual violence; and the parties should not be allowed to personally cross-examine each other. 

The Task Force report also suggests some key ways to improve the government’s enforcement of laws like Title IX, Title IV, and the Clery Act, which require institutions to prevent, respond, and report sexual assault on campus. For one, the Task Force has vowed to improve transparency by posting enforcement data on its website,, which will also provide instructions on filing complaint and other resources for survivors and others. It also notes that the Department of Education will soon post all recent resolution letters and agreement on its website, as well as information about institutions that are under investigation (Title IX Blog is excited about that!)   Per the Task Force, OCR will also collect and disseminate information about institutions’ Title IX Coordinators to ensure that information is easily accessed by students who need it. 

The report also describes the ways in which OCR will strengthen its enforcement procedures– by, for example, instituting a 90-day time limits on negotiating voluntary resolution agreements and making clear that schools should provide survivors with interim relief (like changing housing or class schedules) pending the outcome of an OCR investigation. The report also promotes this handy chart, prepared by the Department of Education, that shows how institutions can comply with Title IX and Clery, as well as FERPA (the federal law protecting students’ privacy) at the same time. Finally, the report also announced a newly executed Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, which clarifies how the agencies – which largely share jurisdiction over Title IX enforcement – will collaborate to avoid duplicating each others’ efforts and ensuring things don’t fall through the cracks.  

Clearly the Task Force has been working hard not only to produce this report but also to coordinated the recent efforts of other federal agencies, all in a relatively short time of 90 days since its formation was announced.  The material it has provided and pulled together in this first report and on its website is helpful and seems poised to make a meaningful difference in university response and enforcement. Its work continues, as the Task Force vows to monitor and expand on these efforts.