Federal Effort Targets Sexual Assaults At Colleges

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Vice President Joseph Biden traveled to the University of New Hampshire to announce new Department of Education guidance on fighting sexual assault on college campuses. A federal study says one in five women will be assaulted while in college. Adding to the trauma, colleges often support the attacker, not the victim.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Justice Department is pressing universities to act more forcefully against sexual assaults. This is the federal government's business under a law known as Title IX. That civil rights law is most famous for mandating equality between boys' and girls' sports. It also requires schools to protect students from sexual assaults.

Yesterday, Vice President Biden traveled to the University of New Hampshire to release new guidelines that clarifies schools' obligations. New Hampshire Public Radio's Elaine Grant was there.

ELAINE GRANT: Last year, a college freshman was raped. Vice President Biden told her story but didn't use her real name. He called her Jenny. He said she'd been drinking at a party. And when she sought justice through the school, she was asked what she was wearing, how she was dancing, and whether she was sober.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: The student judicial panel said that they didn't find Jenny credible because she had been drinking. They decided her rapist was a nice kid and didn't deserve the punishment under the circumstances.

GRANT: In a speech to 600 students and faculty, Biden illustrated one of the most common scenarios on college campuses today. A Justice Department study says one out of five female students will be sexually assaulted or raped, and many times alcohol is involved. But whether someone is drunk or sober doesn't matter. As Biden put it...

Mr. BIDEN: Look, folks, rape is rape is rape.

GRANT: Biden spoke at the University of New Hampshire because it's considered a leader in research on and prevention of campus sexual violence. One of its innovative programs is a marketing blitz called Know Your Power. Last year, students couldn't escape ads plastered on buses, bathroom stalls, computer welcome screens and cafeteria tables. The ads show how to intervene to prevent friends from raping - or being raped.

Another innovation is the Bringing in the Bystander program, which teaches students that everyone is responsible for preventing sex crimes. Senior Herbert Cornell took the Bystander seminars.

Mr. HERBERT CORNELL (Student, University of New Hampshire): It's really amazing. It's like empathy building and like tactics to intervene like in situations in the real world, I guess.

GRANT: Psychology Professor Vicki Banyard says preliminary studies show that the Bystander program works.

Professor VICKI BANYARD (University of New Hampshire): It reduces rape myths, and it increases their expressed confidence to be a helpful bystander.

GRANT: It challenges the attitude that it's OK to force sex on a woman if she's drunk or provocative, or if she said yes and then changed her mind. That's one message that Biden hit hard.

Mr. BIDEN: Look, guys, no matter what a girl does, no matter how she's dressed, no matter how much she's had to drink, it's never, never, never, never, never OK to touch her without her consent. This doesn't make you a man. It makes you a coward.

GRANT: In its guidance, the Department of Education says administrators must inform a victim of her civil rights, investigate quickly, and protect the victim by, for instance, changing her attacker's class schedule.

An expert in the field, Diane Rosenfeld of Harvard Law School, says the guidelines provide an excellent road map for schools that want to do the right thing. But they stop short of making prevention programs mandatory, something she'd like to see. And, she says, administrators must understand their own campus culture.

Professor DIANE ROSENFELD (Harvard Law School): They just need to roll their sleeves up, talk to their students, figure out what is the environment on our campus - do we have pimp and ho parties. I mean, they're referring to women as somebody who exists for the sexual pleasure of men, and women participate in this because it's sexual culture on campuses.

GRANT: Last week, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights announced that it's launching an investigation into the way Yale University has handled numerous complaints of sexual assault.

For NPR News, I'm Elaine Grant.

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