Proposal To Require Campus Climate Surveys On Sexual Assault Faces Quick Opposition

Critical Piece Of White House Sexual Assault Plan Faces Early Opposition

One of the key recommendations from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is a proposal that the higher education community already dislikes.

The task force's first recommendation is that the Obama administration explore options to require that colleges and universities conduct so-called campus climate surveys to better understand how frequently students experience sexual assault. The Justice Department is looking at a pilot program with Rutgers University. In the meantime, the Obama administration will provide schools with a toolkit for developing and conducting such a survey and ask them to do so next year, before any requirement could go into effect.

Speaking at a White House event officially unveiling the task force's report on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden declared that colleges have a "moral responsibility" to understand the scope of the problem on their campuses.

"I challenge every college and university, if they are really serious about protecting students, to conduct anonymous surveys," Biden said. "They have a responsibility to know what's going on on their campuses."

But advocates for the higher education community sound less enthused about the idea of requiring mass surveys.

Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, was mostly positive about the task force's report, but he singled out the mandatory climate survey as something he's not in favor of. Instead, Kruger suggested, the higher education community itself should seek advice on the best way to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses.

"We get very concerned about legislation that requires additional staffing," Kruger said. "Campuses are already very, very tight on resources."

"I will say colleges are concerned about additional requirements, whether they be by regulation or legislation," said Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council of Education, which lobbies on behalf of 1,200 higher education institutions.

It is a concern, Meloy said, if the federal government requires every single college campus to conduct a survey, "particularly if they're not providing funding to us to do so."

Meloy also pointed out that colleges and universities vary enormously in the nature of their campus life and student bodies. One survey may not fit all.

Student sexual assault survivors and advocates are not moved by those concerns.

"I'm happy to say I'm one of the annoying people who recommended it then," said Laura Dunn, a sexual assault survivor and founder of SurvJustice. The nonprofit, which advocates for victims of sexual assault, provided input to the White House's task force.

Dunn worked to get legislation introduced in Maryland requiring similar surveys of colleges in that state. College officials called it an unfunded mandate and said it "would do very little to address the root of the problem." The University of Maryland system officially opposed it, and the bill died in committee.

Nancy Cantalupo, a Georgetown University professor and a research fellow with the Victim Rights Law Center who has long called for these surveys, was also pleased to see the idea included in the task force recommendations.

"I am also happy to see that it will be voluntary for at least the first year," Cantalupo said, "as that will give the good actors among colleges and universities an opportunity to show what I genuinely believe they feel: that they want to end this violence and, as a first step to ending it, they need to understand it, especially in terms of their own communities."

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said these surveys would force schools to face the full dimensions of the problem.

"If you don't ever really take a hard look at a problem, it's easy to shrug it off and make it seem like it's not a big deal," McCaskill said, adding, "If we can move toward a mandatory climate survey, then universities won't be able to hide behind statistics that are not full and complete."

Currently, colleges and universities are required to track and disclose crimes on campus under the Clery Act. However, the annual Clery reports cover only sexual assaults that are reported to the schools, and this is highly underreported crime.

Another purpose of climate surveys then would be to show schools how comfortable their own students are reporting to them -- by comparing the number of incidents identified anonymously to the number of reports actually filed.

Sexual assault experts and survivors have asked for climate surveys for years, but so far they are required at just three institutions of higher education: the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

On Tuesday, the White House provided a lengthy document explaining the purpose and rationale behind the surveys, as well as a sample questionnaire for schools to utilize. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress are already declaring their intent to file legislation requiring colleges to take up the survey.

"I understand that the good guys [that] report feel like they may be damaging the reputation of their schools. I get it. But it doesn't matter," Biden said. "We need to provide survivors with support, and we need to bring perpetrators to justice."

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