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Obama speaks out against sexual assault and rape on college campuses

By Patrick English '15

January 30, 2014

Last week, President Obama pledged to develop a “coordinated federal response” to address campus rape and sexual assault. The president called for more transparent enforcement and greater development of applicable college policies to prevent and respond to sexual assault. While he recognized “an inspiring wave of student-led activism,” Obama stressed that government agencies can help colleges come up with better policies and put them into practice.

As part of this movement, the president created a White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault. Its objectives include providing colleges with better practices for preventing and responding to rape and sexual assault, making sure institutions comply fully with their legal obligations, increasing transparency, broadening public awareness and facilitating coordination among federal agencies. The task force is expected to submit recommendations to the president in 90 days. The inclusion of the attorney general and other major White House officials in this task force shows that the president takes this issue very seriously.

Several activists for the cause met with the White House officials last July, and are pleased with these results. “I feel that our pleas have been heard,” said Dana Bolger, a recent graduate of Amherst College and a leader in the student movement. However, she cautioned that “we’re still waiting to hear details, so it’s difficult to know what kind of difference these efforts will make.” Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, remarked, “I do not know of another president who has spoken out directly on this issue… It’s a unique moment.”

There is no denying that sexual assault remains a major problem on all college campuses, including Hamilton. Over the past few years, students have filed an increasing number of federal complaints under Title IX. The student movement is gaining ground across the nation, and is demanding national attention from college officials, the government, and the media. After meetings with White House officials, this is the response that activists were waiting for.

However, the government’s involvement in this issue adds a new perspective to the problem. While some activists have high hopes for major change, others are discouraged by Obama’s recent track record.

Since his reelection in 2012, Obama has spoken on several issues including education reform, immigration reform, chemical weapon agreements with Syria and changes in the NSA. Despite his many speeches arguing for more transparency of these major issues, very few changes have been made. The president spoke on intervention in Syria in October of last year, yet the civil war continues with little to no response from the U.S. Attempts at immigration reform and education reform are slow at best.

While the president is limited by gridlock in congress, his lack of results after speaking on these issues does not bode well for any new ones that he brings up. As Bolger highlighted, the details in coming months will shape the results of this movement rather than the initial speech given on Wednesday.

The fact that President Obama spoke on this issue marks a major milestone for the movement. As Rider-Milkovich explained, this movement had yet to receive this much publicity from the president. There is a lot of optimism in the movement and the increase of responses on college campuses around the nation can only help this process. Whether or not the White House plays a major role, colleges will have to respond to this growing student movement. As students demand transparency and development of college policies concerning sexual assault, institutions will have to respond to uphold their standards of safety and wellness for their students.

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