Obama targets college sexual assault epidemic

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is launching an initiative to combat sexual assault on college campuses, turning the spotlight on a problem that has devastated millions of Americans yet rarely receives such White House attention.

Obama planned to sign a presidential memorandum Wednesday creating a task force to protect students from sexual assault, with a new White House report declaring that no one in America is more at risk of being raped or assaulted than college women. The report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” says that 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted at college but that only 12 percent of student victims report it.

The report was compiled by the White House Council on Women and Girls. It says that nearly 22 million American women and 1.6 million men have been raped in their lifetimes, with victims more likely to suffer from depression, substance abuse and a wide range of physical ailments, including chronic pain and diabetes.

Rape’s prevalence is highest at college, fueled by drinking and drug use that can incapacitate victims, the report said. Assaults often happen at parties, most student victims know their attackers and campus perpetrators are often repeat 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 own wave of sexual assaults, is giving the task force of administration officials 90 days to come up with recommendations. He’s assigning them to address suggestions 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.

Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, chair of the Council on Women and Girls, said men must be involved to combat the problem and the president wants to lead a cultural shift of men speaking out. “The president is committed to solving this problem, not just as president of the United States, but as a father of two girls” who will soon be heading to college, Jarrett said in an interview.

The report also declares that the criminal justice response to sexual assault is too often inadequate and lays out a goal of increasing arrest, prosecution and conviction rates without any specific targets. The report blames police bias and a lack of training to investigate and prosecute sex crimes for low arrest rates and says the federal government should promote training and help police increase testing of DNA evidence collected from victims.

The report mentions the wave of sexual assault in the military — Obama last month gave the Pentagon a year to better prevent and respond to the crime within its ranks or face further reforms. White House officials say they want to set the example by turning around the sexual assault epidemic in the military.

Obama is bringing Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Education Secretary Arnie Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius to the Oval Office on Wednesday to press them to work on the problem. Then he plans to join an ongoing meeting of his Council on Women and Girls attended by more Cabinet members in the East Room, where he is to sign the memorandum creating the task force. Vice President Joe Biden, who wrote the Violence Against Women Act and has led other efforts to reduce sexual assault, also plans to attend.

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