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Obama targets college sexual assault epidemic

WASHINGTON — President Obama, calling the nation’s college sexual assault epidemic “an affront to our basic decency,’’ created a task force Wednesday after a White House report revealed that 1 in 5 female students had been assaulted on campuses.

‘‘No one is more at risk of being raped or sexually assaulted than women at our nation’s colleges and universities,’’ said the report by the White House Council on Women and Girls.

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Nearly 22 million American women and 1.6 million men have been raped in their lifetimes, according to the report. It chronicled the devastating effects, including depression, substance abuse, and a wide range of physical ailments such as chronic pain and diabetes.

On many campuses, the report said, the sexual assaults are too often shrouded in secrecy, with victims fearing stigma, police poorly trained to investigate, and universities reluctant to disclose the violence. Many of the assaults are fueled by drinking and drug use that can incapacitate victims.

Saying that he was speaking out as president and a father of two daughters, Obama urged men to express outrage. ‘‘We need to encourage young people, men and women, to realize that sexual assault is simply unacceptable,’’ Obama said. ‘‘And they’re going to have to summon the bravery to stand up and say so, especially when the social pressure to keep quiet or to go along can be very intense.’’

Obama gave the task force, composed of administration officials, 90 days to come up with recommendations for colleges to prevent and respond to the crime, increase public awareness of each school’s track record, and enhance coordination among federal agencies to hold schools accountable if they don’t confront the problem.

Records obtained by the Associated Press under the federal Freedom of Information Act illustrate a continuing problem for colleges in investigating crime. The documents include anonymous complaints sent to the Education Department, often alleging universities haven’t accurately reported on-campus crime or appropriately punished assailants as required under federal law.

A former Amherst College student, Angie Epifano, has accused the school of trivializing her report of being raped in a dorm room in 2011 by an acquaintance. She said school counselors questioned whether she was really raped, refused her request to change dorms, discouraged her from pressing charges, and had police take her to a psychiatric ward. She withdrew from Amherst while her alleged attacker graduated.

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