A 'First Of Its Kind Conference' About Sexual Assault On Campus

Nearly three years after the federal government issued guidelines for dealing with sexual misconduct on campus, administrators are meeting at the University of Virginia to discuss problems and progress. As Sandy Hausman of member station WVTF reports, leaders in higher education say they're struggling to understand and manage sexual assaults in the age of "hooking up."

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Educators from around the country have spent the last two days talking about sexual misconduct on college campuses. The conference that wrapped up today at the University of Virginia was billed as a first of its kind. It comes nearly three years after the government issued legal guidelines for universities to deal with such misconduct.

As Sandy Hausman of member station WVTF reports, attendees learned how to better support victims, and students spoke out against stereotypes.

SANDY HAUSMAN, BYLINE: When University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan announced plans for the two-day conference on sexual misconduct, she didn't know what to expect. But the 250 spaces for college presidents, administrators and student leaders quickly filled, and the school started a waiting list.

TERESA SULLIVAN: I think this is a genuine problem. It's not something that we can sweep under the rug. I don't think we should even try. And it seemed to me that every university was struggling on its own to try and figure out how to handle this problem. If we at least share our ideas with each other, we've got a better chance of coming up with a good solution.

HAUSMAN: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of women report being sexually assaulted during college. Last month, President Obama set up a task force to protect college students, and demanded a report in 90 days. He sent a message of support to the conference, and asked the U.S. Department of Education's Catherine Lhamon to spell out government concerns.

CATHERINE LHAMON: We know that too many universities are still discouraging survivors from filing complaints. They are still delaying investigations for months, or longer. They are still retaliating against students for speaking out about their assaults.

HAUSMAN: Princeton Vice Provost Michele Minter says pressure is also coming from students.

MICHELE MINTER: They've had bad, bad experiences. Victims have not been taken seriously, and I think they're finally just tired of it. Social media has made it much easier for them to connect and build networks, so I think that's really been a big part of why it's suddenly accelerating fast.

HAUSMAN: And of course, parents are weighing in. The conference offered sessions on training students to intervene when they see trouble coming. There were talks about alcohol, drugs, and their impact on sexual behavior; a crash course on what's known as sex without strings, or hooking up; and an opportunity for students to advise administrators. UCLA student Savannah Badalich scolded those who implied drinking is the central problem.

SAVANNAH BADALICH: The conference seems to be really focused on student party culture - which is like hook-up culture, drinking, drug use. And I do think it's helpful to talk about these things, but I don't like talking about these things as causes or having major roles, since the only cause of sexual assault is an assaulter. So not victim blaming or even slut shaming, we really need to make sure we talk about the fact that someone is assaulting. That's the cause of assault.

HAUSMAN: But alcohol is one reason universities get involved in what might be a crime. Former New York prosecutor Linda Fairstein told the group district attorneys often walk away from sexual assaults on campus.

LINDA FAIRSTEIN: Many of these cases would not survive in the criminal justice system, especially if both parties have been using alcohol to the extent that they don't have a clear memory of what happened the night before.

HAUSMAN: Conference participants also described successful prevention programs; from an online course the University of Montana required for students and staff, to a Valentine's Day program planned at Georgetown entitled "Cupcakes and Consent." They agreed to keep talking, and scheduled a follow-up conference at Dartmouth in July.

For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville, Va.

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