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Universities struggle with curbing sexual assaults on campus

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Jan. 22, 2014: President Barack Obama signs a memorandum creating a task force to respond to campus rapes during an event for the Council on Women and Girls in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP)

A new White House report released Tuesday on sexual assaults on college campuses is putting a spotlight on concerns about how best to educate and effectively communicate the issue to students.

The report issued by the White House task force to protect students from sexual assault urges colleges to adopt a three-point action plan that includes:
-- Campus climate surveys, to gauge student concerns about sexual violence
-- Educating and empowering men to step in when someone's in trouble
-- Putting in place effective campus response plans when a student reports an assault

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) estimates that a college with 10,000 students could experience as many as 350 rapes per year, while the White House Council on Women and Girls -- co-authors of the White House report -- estimates nearly one-in-five women will be sexually assaulted during her time in college. 

Who should be the focus of effective communication and education about the risks of sexual assault on campus is a question many colleges are struggling to answer.  Kelly Andersen, executive director of Dane County Rape Crisis Center in Madison, Wisc. – home of the University of Wisconsin's main campus -- says universities need to address the issue from two angles: risk reduction and prevention.

“We want [students] to have the information they need to make safer choices, but it's not a potential victim's responsibility or fault that we live in a rape culture,” Andersen said. “So there has to be a dual message of, 'this is how to reduce the risk, but it is not up to you to prevent sexual assault.' ”

An example of questionable communication involved students at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., who received a widely controversial email from school administration during homecoming 2013 weekend telling them to look out for potentially “unwanted sexual advances" from alumni as opposed to advising alumni not to make sexual advances toward students.

Another questionable communication involved a campus-wide email sent by Colgate University officials to students warning them of an alleged same-day assault of a student, urging students to be “aware of [their] surroundings,” and “look out for one another at social events.” Some Colgate students criticized the email, saying it perpetuates victim-blaming.

“I wish there could have been at least one sentence dedicated to the importance of consent and not being a perpetrator,” Colgate senior Maddy Brown said. “It's unfair to make potential victims responsible.”

“There are many people working tirelessly to empower and support our community,” Colgate University Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Scott Brown said, “both in reducing the likelihood any crime will be committed and supporting any victims. Students need to lead this, and help us determine what they need from each other.”

Kelly Andersen believes that it's up to the colleges to take the lead in working to effectively educate and communicate about sexual violence.

“Universities have the capacity to set a standard for community behavior,” Andersen said. “One that says, 'this a standard of respect that we expect on our campus and that includes having consent every step of the way.”

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