Student Activists Fight To Stem Sexual Assaults A White House task force is issuing new guidelines for colleges, but University of Delaware students have some recommendations of their own.
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Student Activists Fight To Stem Sexual Assaults

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Student Activists Fight To Stem Sexual Assaults

Student Activists Fight To Stem Sexual Assaults

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The White House is out this morning with new recommendations to protect college students from sexual assault. They range from better reporting and enforcement to protecting the privacy of victims. The recommendations come from a task force formed earlier this year to address a problem that is getting a lot more attention on college campuses than it used to.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The problem of campus sexual assault is making headlines in student newspapers. It's a focus of student activism. Put simply: Young people are talking about it. And the University of Delaware is no different. That's where we caught up with a small group of students and asked them to talk about their experiences and those of their friends. They gathered in a quiet room in the campus conference center - five students, all women.

Melissa Pleasanton, a senior, went first.

MELISSA PLEASANTON: I'm a triple major in Sociology, Criminal Justice and Women's Studies with concentrations in Social Welfare and Domestic Violence Prevention and Services.

KEITH: So when one of her friends was sexually assaulted, Pleasanton was an obviously choice to help her navigate the process and the emotional trauma. Pleasanton missed some classes along the way.

PLEASANTON: I did talk to a professor about time that I had missed in class and their response was no offense but I hear this every semester, which I think is - I'm not surprised that she hears this every semester because of how often it happens. But how horrible is that to hear.

KEITH: She says her friend didn't go to the police and so like most assaults that take place on college campuses, her friend's experience won't make it into the official crime statistics. Abby Samuels is also a senior.

ABIGAIL SAMUELS: And looking at the crime statistics that our campus is required to report, I mean they may as well not.

KEITH: This isn't an indictment of her university. In fact, the University of Delaware has a Justice Department grant to develop innovative ways to reduce sexual assault. Samuels recently organized an event on campus where students sat in a darkened lecture hall and one by one raised their voices to share their experiences with sexual assault.

She was surprised by how many people spoke up, that she knew some of them and didn't know they had been assaulted.

SAMUELS: You know, you hear those statistics, one in five; that's one person out of every five persons. That means that one of us in this room could be a survivor of sexual assault.

KEITH: And in fact one of them was. She didn't want to tell her story on the radio, but it happened in high school. She withdrew consent, felt violated, but wouldn't call it rape. Another student, Gabrielle Coleman, volunteers answering calls on a sexual assault hotline. She says so many people she's helped are so daunted by the process they don't want to go to the hospital or file a formal report.

GABRIELLE COLEMAN: These are those silent voices, you know, why we don't have the true statistics on our website of who's really being sexual assaulted and how many people are being sexually assaulted.

KEITH: One of the White House recommendations would begin to get at this reporting shortfall. It calls for schools to conduct a climate survey, anonymously asking students about their experiences and attitudes. At first it would only be voluntary, but administration officials say the goal is to make it mandatory by 2016. Laura Dunn is a survivor and activist who the White House consulted as it drew up its recommendations.

She says current law only requires campuses to disclose reported crimes.

LAURA DUNN: Unfortunately this has created a perverse incentive for campuses to keep that number low. They are not discouraging the crime. They are only discouraging reporting. So by requiring a climate survey that actually captures victimization, if we can make that law, what will happen now is there'll be a true picture of crime on campus.

KEITH: Making it mandatory will likely require legislation. For now the recommendations announced by the White House fall into four categories: better identifying the problem, preventing assaults, responding effectively, and improving the federal government's enforcement. Dunn became an activist after she was assaulted at the University of Wisconsin by members of her crew team.

Her largely unsuccessful fight for justice made her work to change the way these crimes are treated by universities and law enforcement.

DUNN: It's very heartbreaking to know that there are still victims going through the same thing I went through a decade ago.

KEITH: Today's report from the White House is called Not Alone. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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