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Federal Effort Seeks to Help Colleges, Schools Prevent Sexual Violence

DURHAM, N.H. — A nation that prides itself on fighting the abuse of power has an obligation to prevent sexual violence in schools and on college campuses, Vice President Joe Biden said Monday as he kicked off a nationwide awareness campaign on schools’ responsibilities and victims’ rights.

Biden and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the University of New Hampshire to announce the initiative. Colleges and public and private K-12 schools will receive letters outlining their duties under Title IX, the federal civil rights law banning sexual discrimination and harassment.

“Students across the country deserve the safest possible environment in which to learn,” Biden said before the announcement. “That’s why we’re taking new steps to help our nation’s schools, universities and colleges end the cycle of sexual violence on campus.”

The regulations are not new, but the effort to promote them is. Officials say schools need comprehensive guidelines for filing complaints, helping victims, disciplining perpetrators and monitoring campus climates in the wake of an attack.

UNH was chosen for the announcement because of its highly regarded violence prevention efforts. But Duncan described other colleges where victims are ostracized, not allowed to call witnesses during disciplinary proceedings and are prevented from speaking out.

“Every school would like to believe it is immune from sexual violence but the facts suggest otherwise,” Duncan said in previously released comments.

Nearly 20 percent of college women will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault, as will about 6 percent of undergraduate men, according to data provided by the Education Department.

Younger students are vulnerable, too. The department’s Office of Civil Rights received 35 complaints last year alleging sexual violence, about two dozen of them at the K-12 level.

There have been 17 complaints filed in just the first quarter of this year, a 183 percent increase, and about 10 were at the K-12 level. The agency began using sexual violence as a complaint category at the start of the Obama administration.

Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women, says the awareness campaign could be very valuable for school administrators.

“There’s a lot of schools out there that are very well meaning and want to do the right thing, but these situations are so complex that having more concrete guidelines … will be incredibly useful,” Maatz says.

The University of New Hampshire has made efforts to educate, prevent and respond to sexual assaults, including 24-hour victim assistance. It also started a program now used at other universities called Bringing in the Bystander, which teaches passers-by to intervene safely and effectively to stop a sexual assault.

“UNH has long been regarded as a leader in addressing violence against women on campus,” says spokeswoman Erika Mantz, noting the school began funding one of the country’s first on-campus crisis centers for rape and sexual harassment in 1988.

Last fall, three UNH faculty members briefed the White House on their research on violence against women, and then attended a celebration with Biden of the 16th anniversary of the federal Violence Against Women Act. Biden wrote the legislation as a senator in 1994.

Monday’s announcement in Durham comes on the heels of allegations of a sexually hostile environment at Yale University, but officials say the timing is coincidental.

The Office of Civil Rights announced Friday that it would investigate the Ivy League school after receiving a 26-page complaint from students accusing the university of failing to adequately respond to sexual harassment concerns.

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