TOPICS > Education

White House task force asks colleges for more accountability on sexual assault

April 29, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
The Obama administration ramped up pressure to confront sexual assault within American colleges amid mounting nationwide effort to hold colleges and universities accountable. Amherst College president Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, Andrea Pino of End Rape on Campus and Alison Kiss of the Clery Center for Security on Campus join Judy Woodruff to evaluate the recent progress, and what more needs to be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: College campuses across the country are increasingly in the spotlight for sexual assaults on students and how many schools have chosen to pursue charges. Ways to combat the problem are being pushed on multiple fronts.

The Obama administration stepped up its pressure today.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault don’t occur on their campus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s White House event featuring Vice President Joe Biden came amid a growing campaign to focus attention on sexual assaults at American colleges.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: We need to provide survivors with more support, and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice. And we need the college and university to step up and learn the lessons which we have learned in the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act on the criminal side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A White House task force with its own Web site,, recommended that schools conduct surveys to gauge the scope of sexual violence on their campuses and identify trained victims’ advocates to help survivors. The Web site will post enforcement actions in a bid to make the process more transparent.

It’s still up to colleges themselves to make changes, but they’re under mounting pressure. In 2007, the National Institute of Justice found one in five collegiate women falls victim to sexual assault.

In recent months, cases have been spring up everywhere, from Ivy League schools, to smaller liberal arts institutions and large state universities.

Democratic U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill want to set aside more federal money to enforce sexual assault laws. McCaskill appeared Sunday on CBS, comparing student rape cases in colleges to those in the military.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D, Missouri: I see a lot of similarities on college campuses in terms of a closed cultural environment, where victims are so worried about how they’re going to be viewed if they come out of the shadows.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, women are increasingly filing cases under the federal Title IX law that requires schools to prevent assaults and protect victims. More than 50 campuses have ongoing investigations into whether they are complying.

And we’re joined now by three people at today’s event at the White House who have all taken leading roles in dealing with this problem. Carolyn “Biddy” Martin is president of Amherst College. The school came under scrutiny when students filed federal complaints about the campus’ handling of sexual assault reports. Alison Kiss is executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, which works directly with schools. And Andrea Pino is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an assault survivor herself and co-founder of the group End Rape on Campus, which helps students file federal complaints when they feel their case has been mishandled.

And we thank you all for being with us.

So, President Martin, let me start with you. Does this mean that the burden, more than ever now, is on colleges and college officials to prevent these assaults and then deal with them once they — if they have happened?

CAROLYN “BIDDY” MARTIN, President, Amherst College: I think it does.

I think colleges need to be accountable, are beginning to hold themselves accountable. And what we got today was a set of guidelines, a comprehensive description of the nature and the scope of the problem, a reiteration of what Title IX requires, and then a very clear set of guidelines about how colleges and universities need to implement the requirements.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alison Kiss, how different then will this be from the way things have been handled until now?

ALISON KISS, Executive Director, Clery Center for Security on Campus: Something that this today did was, it really continued the conversation. And we need to talk about this on campuses. And the conversation has started this year.

There have been a group of students who have been instrumental in beginning that conversation. And when we talk about this, more students are going to come forward and report, and that needs to be what campuses recognize, is that, if you’re talking about this, if you’re putting resources out there, students are going to come forward, and they’re going to want help, and they’re going to seek help, and they’re going to report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrea Pino, as somebody who has been involved yourself in reporting and advocating for students, how much difference do you think these guidelines will make?

ANDREA PINO, Co-Founder, End Rape on Campus: I think, honestly, in these past few years, that’s kind of been the year that Jane Doe had a name.

And it’s definitely been monumental change in terms of how many people we now know are being affected by this issue. And I think this guideline really puts the jurisdiction around what sexual assault is, because, oftentimes, it was kind of misunderstood, in the fact that sexual assault is very clear and concise.

It’s when there’s a no, when there is not a yes. Sexual assault is sexual assault. And like Vice President Joe Biden said today, if there isn’t consent, that is sexual assault.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is that — but how is that different from what was the case before?

ANDREA PINO: Well, for a very long time, it was very vague in terms of what exactly the issue was. It was more on the lines that sexual assault is a violation of Title IX.

But the jurisdiction over…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is the federal law about…

ANDREA PINO: Yes. That’s Title XI, the federal policy.


ANDREA PINO: And really now it’s a conversation about the Clery Act and Title IX and how they both work together and how it’s really up to every college campus to enforce those laws, because if sexual assaults happen on college campuses, the students don’t have an equal right to education. That’s a very important concern that what we’re enforcing right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Martin, why have colleges been reluctant to deal, to fully grapple with the problem?

CAROLYN “BIDDY” MARTIN:  It’s a very good question, and I don’t have a great answer to it.

I think what I would say, going back to Andrea’s point, is the past two years have seen the students become the teachers of colleges and universities. I think what we got today is going to be enormously helpful, but the credit for making this the issue that it has become and for holding colleges and universities accountable, that credit goes to young people such as Andrea Pino.

And that is why I think colleges and universities have begun to take notice and have started putting the resources that are required into prevention and into addressing problems when they occur.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alison Kiss, pick up on that, because you do work with different schools.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think is holding schools back in their — being aggressive about dealing with this problem?

ALISON KISS: I think institutions of higher education, much like other organizations, often operate in silence, and one hand is not talking to another, and there’s not collaboration.

And one thing that needs to happen are more conversations like this, where you have students sitting at the table with college presidents, with advocates talking about the issue, because you often have people who care about the issue, but coming at it from so many different directions. So coming at it if you have been a survivor is different than coming at it if you’re the institution’s leader.

So bringing all these people to the table and sharing different viewpoints and solutions, so really having a solutions-based approach to how we make this campus, how we make the college campus environment in general better for future generations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrea Pino, is it the problem is much worse than it used to be or that it’s getting more reported than it used to be? How do you see that?

ANDREA PINO: Well, I think it’s very underreported. The fact that we have one in five, that’s a grossly — you know, it’s an underestimated — that’s not exactly what it is at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think it’s more than that?

ANDREA PINO: Oh, absolutely. It’s definitely much more than that.

And we estimate it’s just so much more. And I think it’s even just my college experience. Most of my friends have been impacted at some point. I think just at UNC, it’s not that there is really a deterrence from actually doing something about it. It’s just that, for a very long time, there really wasn’t a face to the issue.

So, really, these policies were written without us in mind, in the sense that they were responding very aggressively, just like any school, like Amherst, is responding to federal guidelines, but there wasn’t really a face that was actually showing to you what the impact of the problem is.

And oftentimes it’s not just one incident itself, but it’s our entire educational experience that is impacted by the issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Martin, back to you. Amherst had its own incident. How is it now going to be different for you as the president of Amherst or for the leader of any school to address this? What’s going to change?

CAROLYN “BIDDY” MARTIN: Well, as I said, it started to be different a couple of years ago, and I think Andrea is right to say, when students begin to give a face to the problem.

In 2012, the fall of 2012, we completely revamped our policies, our procedures, our protocols, and changed the way the cases are adjudicated. We no longer have faculty and students, for example, sitting on disciplinary boards or hearing boards.


CAROLYN “BIDDY” MARTIN: Well, our students pointed out — and, by the way, I really think what we have learned, at least at Amherst, we have learned by virtue of the interaction, close interaction and collaboration with students and staff.

But students pointed out that, especially in a small institution, they didn’t want people on hearing boards, whether they were the complainant or the respondent, with whom they could potentially be friends or a faculty member whose class they might take in the next semester who would have heard the intimate details of their lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Relationships…

CAROLYN “BIDDY” MARTIN: They also want people with expertise and training. And they deserve that.

So, it’s about professionalizing the entire set of people and practices that we use in demanding excellence from everybody involved. And that professionalization is critical.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What more needs to be done, Alison and Andrea? What else has to happen now?

ALISON KISS: On campuses, around policies, policies are important to have to be in compliance with federal laws.

But then they have to make sense to students. So there has to be a concerted effort to get out in front and talk about this. From a prevention standpoint, the public health model works. There’s evidence behind that model. So, we need to look at changing behaviors and how we can do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s an example of that?

ALISON KISS: An example is from the CDC. So, we have seen this kind of three-tiered approach to prevention — a three-tiered approach to prevention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Federal Centers for Disease Control.

ALISON KISS: Yes, Centers for Disease Control. Thank you.

And this kind of approach that looks at a community-based approach, so changing behaviors within the community. And, quite honestly, it’s not all on higher education. It needs to start early. We need to start talking to children when they’re young. I’m talking to my 7-year-old about this issue now. And you need to start at an age-appropriate level and continue that conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we should point out, it’s women, but it’s also men on campus who can be the victim of sexual assault.

ANDREA PINO: And jumping on that, I think it’s also to move beyond compliance, but every institution has its own difficulties.

And one of the things that I experienced after recovering from sexual assault — I’m still recovering from it now — it’s just the amazing support that I had from specific faculty that were able to accommodate me. But I had to find it on my own. I wasn’t offered PTSD resources, even though — after I was diagnosed. I was never offered any type of housing accommodations. I was never offered extensions.

I had to go and fight for that. Students that are diagnosed with PTSD are also guaranteed rights by disability services. They should be under Title II.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is this — are those kinds of services going to be more available now?

ANDREA PINO: Well, they should be.

And that’s the thing, is if you follow basic compliance, oftentimes you miss those gaps. You miss the gaps of disability services, of mental health. And as it is at UNC, it’s really one therapist for 1,800 students, and oftentimes students are kind of shoehorned into that. And they don’t really get the help that they need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it sounds as if you’re saying some of this is changing.

CAROLYN “BIDDY” MARTIN:  Oh, it’s definitely changing. It’s changing significantly.

But I think everyone who is speaking here has the same message, in that the approach has to be comprehensive and it can’t just be focused on how to comply with laws. It’s has to be how you solve the problem of sexual assault and rape, not only on campuses, but in the society as a whole.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Biddy Martin from Amherst, Alison Kiss with the Clery Center, Andrea Pino, we thank you all.