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This week, the White House told colleges and universities it's time to take more action to prevent sexual assaults. Every school is already required to report to the federal government any crime that occurs on campus. NPR's investigative unit has been analyzing the data on this from the Department of Education. It found the number of reported forcible rapes at four-year colleges has gone way up - a 49 percent increase between 2008 and 2012.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro has more.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: That 49 percent increase shows that sexual assault is a persistent and ugly problem on college campuses - more than 3,600 cases in 2012. But there's also a way to look at the rise in reports and see something positive. It means more students are willing to come forward and report this under-reported crime. Daniel Carter is a veteran advocate for better campus safety laws.

DANIEL CARTER: It's a good thing that more victims are reporting because they're getting the help and support they need from their institutions. And this is - for far too long, they've been left on their own. And now, they're getting the help they need. Which is the first step in healing and recovery and ultimately, you know, them finishing their education as wholly as possible.

SHAPIRO: Carter is the director of a group called 32 National Campus Safety Initiative. He says there's still a long way for schools to go. But just in the last couple years, school administrations have been prodded by students demanding better treatment. And schools have been pushed, since 2011, by new rules and laws from Washington.

Among the schools that Carter and other advocates point to as being models is the University of Michigan. But that school, too, has had controversy, which shows just how hard it can be for schools to take on the problem of sexual assault.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS CHIMING)

SHAPIRO: On the campus of the University of Michigan, it's exam week. Graduation is on Saturday. And in a room at the student union, a group of students and staff sit around a conference table to talk about the training sessions they'll run for incoming first-year students about how to prevent sexual assault.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What would you have done if your parents had asked you, like, what's an example of a healthy relationship in your life.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Really? Like, I know what a healthy relationship is, Mom. Like...

SHAPIRO: The White House announced steps it wants schools to take to prevent sexual assaults. The University of Michigan is already doing most of those things. For example, it teaches what's called bystander education, which shows students how to step in and stop a dangerous situation if they see, say, one student trying to get another student drunk at a party.

Students not only are taught the definition of consent, but then role-play and practice saying the word no, and even how to respond correctly and graciously when you're told no.

The NPR data shows that reports of forcible sexual assaults have gone up 113 percent at Michigan between 2010 and 2012. Royster Harper is the school's vice president for student affairs.

ROYSTER HARPER: So if you say, look, University of Michigan, we want you to be aggressive; we want you to be focused; we want you to get young people to, your students to tell you what's going on - then our numbers are going to go up. If you want low numbers, you're really saying to students, be quiet.

SHAPIRO: And students have not been quiet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING OF PROTEST)

SHAPIRO: In February, a small group of students protested the way the university handled an allegation of sexual misconduct against a player on the football team. In 2009, a first-year student said the player, Brendan Gibbons, raped her at a frat party, but the case was dropped. Last August, the school adopted a new policy based on new federal guidelines that gave the school more leeway to conduct an investigation.

The case against Gibbons was reopened. In December, right before Michigan went to a bowl game, the player was expelled. Some students thought Gibbons got special treatment. University officials refused to turn over records to an investigative committee formed by the student government. That student committee concluded that the university took too long - more than 60 days - to investigate most allegations.

In January, the school had hired a second investigator to spend full time on sexual assault cases. Michael Proppe was the student government president.

MICHAEL PROPPE: If the University of Michigan still has a ways to go but is doing a very good job relative to everyone else, everyone else really needs to do a lot of catch-up.

SHAPIRO: By next fall, all schools around the country must comply with a new federal law that demands more assault prevention education and better investigations. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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