WASHINGTON — Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye to sexual assault on the nation’s campuses, Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday, as he urged school administrators to adopt measures to improve reporting of assaults and protect the confidentiality of victims.
“These are our children, these are our wives, our daughters, our sisters — these people are you,” Biden said at a White House event where he unveiled prescriptions recommended by a presidential task force.
President Obama established the task force this year to study the way universities handle reports of sexual assault, after many schools including Yale University, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, Occidental College, Wesleyan University, and Florida State University received criticism for mishandling complaints.
On Monday, the Department of Education found that Tufts University is not complying with federal rules governing how colleges address sexual assaults and needed to do more to ensure the safety of students.
The task force found that nearly 20 percent of female college students had been assaulted, but that only 12 percent of such attacks were reported. It concluded that many women and girls feared that reports of sexual assault might become public, discouraging them from coming forward.
On Monday, the White House released a report drafted by the task force that urged colleges to provide better assurance of confidentiality to those who reported such crimes; conduct standardized, anonymous surveys on campus assaults; and replicate programs at the University of New Hampshire, the University of Kentucky, and others that train bystanders on how to intervene.
Biden said the standardized surveys offered a “true measure of the sexual assault climate” on campuses. He also showed a public service announcement featuring celebrities like Benicio Del Toro, Seth Myers, and Steve Carrell, as well as Biden and Obama, in which they call on men to recognize when women do not consent to sex and to intervene when they become aware of an assault by another man.
“We’re never going to solve this epidemic until we get men involved,” Biden said. He said that the public service announcement “sends a powerful message to guys: Rape is rape. Don’t look away. Do something. Speak up. Stand up.”
Beyond applying pressure on colleges to crack down on sexual assault, the government will operate a website, NotAlone.gov, to track enforcement on campuses and to provide victims with information on how to file complaints without the cooperation of their campus administrators.
The concern over sexual assault is decidedly bipartisan. For months, lawmakers in Congress have held hearings and debated how to combat an epidemic of sexual assaults in the military.
In December, Obama signed legislation that prevents commanding officers from overturning sexual assault verdicts, expands a special victims counsel program for the survivors of sexual assault throughout the military, and makes retaliation for reporting assault a crime.
In March, however, a Senate bill pushed by Senator Kirstin E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, that would have removed military commanders from decisions over the prosecution of sexual assault cases in the armed forces failed to attract enough votes to avoid a filibuster.
As the congressional fight over military sexual assault receded, lawmakers began broadening their focus to an array of sex crimes including college assaults, child molestation, and human trafficking.
Among the bills being considered on Capitol Hill is a measure offered by Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, that would tighten background checks on people who work in schools and ban the practice of pushing child molesters out of one school district and into another. A similar bill was passed by the House.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, is pushing a bill that targets sex trafficking in the foster care system.
Last year, addressing critics who said that universities systematically underreported violent crime, Congress passed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which requires that domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking cases be disclosed in campus crime statistics.
Advocates for victims have said that the law does not go far enough, pointing to a predecessor law passed two decades ago that requires universities to disclose information about crime on their campuses but that they said was rarely enforced.