Responding to complaints that universities have fallen short in policing sexual assaults on their campuses, the White House announced a series of measures Tuesday intended to pressure college officials to step up efforts.
The Obama administration wants universities to conduct "campus climate" surveys beginning next year and to clarify sexual assault policies so that victims know where to turn for help. The government is also creating a website, NotAlone.gov, that it says will help victims file federal complaints and access data on federal investigations.
One in five female students is sexually assaulted at college, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but only a small percentage of those incidents are reported, administration officials say. The guidelines by a White House task force follow high-profile cases at Yale, Amherst, Dartmouth and other schools.
In Maryland, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating a possible violation of Title IX sexual violence response requirements at Frostburg State University. Other Maryland universities say they already have taken steps to update their sexual assault policies.
"I think there's a misconception out there that campuses aren't really concerned about this, and that couldn't be further from the truth," said Deb Moriarty, the vice president for student affairs at Towson University. "This has been a very hot topic for us and one that we continue to grapple with."
Moriarty said students often think of sexual assault as an attack by a stranger. She said it is the university's job to educate them about the more common danger of an assault by an acquaintance.
Frostburg spokeswoman Liz Medcalf declined to comment on the investigation by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. She said the university is "aware that it involves a sexual assault that occurred off campus in 2013."
Representatives with the Office for Civil Rights visited Frostburg's campus for two days this month, Medcalf said. They held focus groups with student athletes, the Student Government Association, faculty and others about sexual violence and sexual harassment.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, confirmed the investigation, and said it was the only current investigation at a Maryland college. He declined to comment further.
A former Frostburg student who said she was sexually assaulted by another student off campus last year lauded the Obama task force's recommendations, which she described as overdue. The Baltimore Sun does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
The former student said she filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights because she was not satisfied with how campus officials handed her case.
"It was like everything was geared toward making his life easier rather than mine," she said.
The woman said a disciplinary hearing was held two months after her rape. She said the university suspended her attacker for the fall semester. She said he harassed her on campus throughout last spring.
The woman said the university did not adequately explain her rights or respond properly when her rapist harassed her. "The whole idea is to feel like you're not a victim afterward," she said.
The woman said she is starting a nonprofit sexual assault prevention group.
"I told my family if I had known what I knew now I would have avoided that whole process," the woman said. "It ruined a lot of my life last year."
Medcalf, the Frostburg spokeswoman, declined to comment on the woman's account, citing federal privacy guidelines. She said the university recognizes sexual assault as a "serious problem" and has mandatory sexual assault prevention training for students. An advisory council to the university's president is developing recommendations for improvements, she said.
The proposals unveiled by the White House on Tuesday are only recommendations. Vice President Joe Biden said the administration will look for ways to require schools to take action by 2016 — potentially by leveraging federal funds, or asking Congress to step in.
"We all know that many of our schools just aren't safe," said Biden, a longtime advocate for measures to address sexual assault and domestic violence. "We have to do everything in our power to protect them — these are our children."
College officials in Maryland said they were reviewing the recommendations of the White House task force on sexual assault. Some said they have already taken steps to update their sexual assault policies after changes last year to federal requirements for reporting crimes on campus, and a 2011 letter from the Office for Civil Rights on how colleges can combat sexual violence.
The Clery Act, the law that requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and around campus, also contains requirements on how disciplinary proceedings should be conducted.
The new requirements include sexual misconduct training for students, publicly disclosing incidents of domestic violence and stalking on campus, and disciplinary proceedings run by officials who have been trained on sexual misconduct.
The task force recommended schools conduct an anonymous survey to gauge the prevalence of sexual assaults, how frequently the incidents are reported and how well officials handled those cases.
The administration said it would provide a "tool kit" to help schools conduct those polls. A bill that died in the Maryland General Assembly this year would have required similar surveys.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who helped lead the effort in Congress last year to approve the Violence Against Women Act — which included the new reporting requirements for schools — said she supported the administration's efforts.
"Women deserve to be safe everywhere, in their homes, in their dorms, in the classroom, and in the workplace," the Maryland Democrat said. "Higher education should be part of the American dream, not a nightmare for students suffering the physical and psychological distress of sexual assault."
Moriarty, the Towson vice president, said the university is still reviewing where its policies might be improved. She said she is not in favor of the anonymous sexual assault surveys.
"I don't think anybody's unaware of the scope of the problem," she said. "I'm not sure if using our resources to collect data is the best use of time," compared to training programs and handling complaints.
The task force also called for an expansion of prevention programs, including "bystander intervention" initiatives that focus on getting onlookers to take action when they see a woman in trouble.
Some Maryland schools already use bystander intervention training programs.
"Much of the time it's a case of empowering bystanders to know that it's OK to intervene," said Michael N. Webster, the director of campus safety at McDaniel College.
In a public-service announcement unveiled Tuesday, President Barack Obama and Biden — along with actor Daniel Craig, late-night talk show host Seth Meyers and other celebrities — urged men to "be part of the solution."
The Education Department is clarifying its guidance to allow on-campus counselors to talk with victims in confidence. Some are concerned that policies that require counselors to report all details of an incident to school officials can intimidate victims who may be wary about filing a formal report. Individual schools ultimately will have to decide whether to follow that guidance.
Some Maryland schools have formed task forces to study how they handle sexual misconduct. Some have created new positions to oversee responses.
The Johns Hopkins University announced a new sexual violence working group last week to examine the school's approach and resources.
Kevin Shollenberger, the vice provost for student affairs at Hopkins, said he found the task force recommendations "extremely helpful" and that officials want to make the university's process for reporting an assault more understandable.
The former Frostburg student called sexual assault on college campuses a "pandemic."
"One in five is entirely too much," she said. "People send their children off to college expecting them to be safe, but with that statistic, is it worth it to ruin their life?"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun