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Federal Government Tackles Epidemic of Sexual Assaults on Campus

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Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and senior Sara Jane Bibeau deliver remarks at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, N.H., on April 4, 2011.

CREDIT: The White House / David Lienemann

By the turn of the 21st century, nearly 60 percent of undergraduates at American colleges and universities were women. Girls are outpacing boys at nearly every level of the country’s educational system.

But even as American women perform highly in institutions of higher education at an unprecedented rate, they remain on the wrong side of a startling statistic. According to a 2007 survey by the Justice Department, one in five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault during her undergraduate years (as well as one in 16 college men).

That dizzying figure seems to have recently caught up to the Department of Education, which announced this week that they would begin an informational campaign to compel universities and secondary schools to go further in preventing sexual assault on their campuses.

"Students across the country deserve the safest possible environment in which to learn," Vice President Joe Biden told an audience at the University of New Hampshire Monday. "That's why we’re taking new steps to help our nation’s schools, universities and colleges end the cycle of sexual violence on campus."

Biden has long been a champion of women’s rights, having instrumental in the passage of the Violence Against Women Act and a champion of the yet-to-be-passed International Violence Against Women Act.

Biden’s speech occurred on the heels of a "Dear Colleagues"letter [PDF] sent Monday morning by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to schools across the country, urging them to step up their enforcement of Title IX—a part of the education-related amendments to Civil Rights Act of 1964 that includes provisions for the prevention of sexual assault of students.

The call to action comes just three days after the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights announced that it would open an unrelated investigation into mishandling of sexual assault cases at Yale University, which it saidconstituted a "failure to eliminate a hostile sexual environment on campus."

Even with the government demanding renewed vigilance, however, college campuses remain notoriously prickly places to bring justice to victims of sexual assault. University justice bodies—school police, student conduct boards, and student affairs’ offices—don’t always see eye to eye with local and national authorities on how to bring charges or punish students.

Universities also face unique challenges: Victims who are assaulted while intoxicated often fear they will be punished by the university with illegal drug or alcohol use if they report the crime. Then there’s the fact that colleges are small, often insular communities, and the reality is that on a purely personal level it’s much more complicated to grapple with punishing your attacker when he sits next to his victim in organic chemistry twice a week.

"More and more people have started thinking colleges should be the ones to fix this," said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, at Stetson University, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. "We've been lured into doing something in a criminal-justice model that the criminal-justice system itself hasn't been able to deal with."

Ryan Brown is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can e-mail her at ryan.brown@duke.edu.

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