WASHINGTON — When he was a freshman at Boston College, Joseph Palomba’s resident assistant invited him to watch a rehearsal for “Take Back the Night,” an annual event in which sexual assault survivors publicly share their stories.
“It was a really shocking thing for me,” said Palomba, now a Boston College senior. “I had never really been educated about this. . . . I began to think what could I do to help?”
Palomba, like hundreds of students at Boston College, decided to participate in the school’s Bystander Intervention program, peer-led training that aims to teach students to prevent sexual assault by intervening when they see dangerous situations unfolding. Now he’s running the program.
As a man, he often feels like a minority in this work, and he said people often questioned why he was involved. Then, last winter, Palomba was invited to the White House, along with students and administrators from other schools, to participate in discussions about the issue.
Leading the discussion was an emotional Vice President Joe Biden, who seemed on the brink of tears.
Biden has led the White House’s effort to combat campus sexual assault, most notably with the recent “It’s On Us” online campaign. With an emphasis on social media, it reminds everyone to play a role in stopping sexual assault, whether that’s by intervening in a situation or making sure a friend gets home safely.
The campaign began with a video featuring President Obama, Biden, and a string of celebrities such as “Mad Men” actor Jon Hamm. Since it went online a month ago, it has garnered more than 2.5 million views.
The campaign also has a website where users can pledge to recognize that nonconsensual sex is sexual assault, identify situations where it might occur, intervene in situations where consent isn’t given, and create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable. The website prompts those who take the pledge to create a customized “It’s On Us” profile picture to raise awareness among their friends on social networks.
Universities, student groups, and college athletes have partnered with the White House and pledged to be part of this campaign. In early October, Amherst College signed on with an event where students were given “It’s On Us” T-shirts.
Amherst has been at the center of the campus sexual assault dialogue since October 2012, when a former student, Angie Epifano, published an account of her rape and what she called the university’s subsequent mishandling of it in the school newspaper. The article went viral, and it prompted other survivors to come forward and share their experiences and form a network of activists.
This year, Obama said during an address that everyone should stand with the survivors in this fight. The White House put out a series of guidelines earlier this year for colleges to follow in addressing campus sexual assault, including conducting anonymous campus climate surveys to more accurately measure how often it happens and outlining resources that should be provided for survivors. And this week the administration strengthened the rules for reporting sexual and domestic assault at schools.
The Department of Education also made an unprecedented decision to release the names of the more than 50 schools that were under investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases in May. By October, the number of schools under investigation has increased to 85. Ten of those schools were located in Massachusetts, more than in any other state. They are Amherst College, Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Brandeis University, Emerson College, Hampshire College, Harvard College, Harvard University Law School, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Amanda Vann, who has the title of Amherst’s “sexual respect educator,” said due to the campus history with sexual assault, the college became an early adopter of the White House recommendations and the “It’s On Us” campaign.
“We’re asking student to take the pledge, to put pictures on social media,” Vann said. “But we’re also asking them to talk about it with the people that they work with, the people that they play with, and talk about why it was important to join it for them personally.”
Beyond the White House campaign, lawmakers in Congress want to increase transparency and accountability when it comes to sexual assault. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, cosponsored legislation that would require colleges to maintain support services for student survivors and stiffer penalties for schools that violate federal gender discrimination laws that are often applied to sexual assault cases. McCaskill also led the Senate’s effort to address military sexual assault this year. A bipartisan group also sent a letter to U.S. News & World Report this summer, asking them to take campus safety into account when developing their annual college rankings.
Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, signed that letter and cosponsored House legislation related to sexual assault in the military. Tsongas said the work that she did to reform the military’s response to sexual assault was applicable to college campuses.
Tsongas said she has been reviewing several legislative proposals related to campus sexual assault. She applauded the White House’s work, particularly a campus survey that she compared to one conducted in the military that led to the Senate’s passage of a bill sponsored by McCaskill in March.