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Editorial: An immediate response to the national attention on campus sexual assault

On April 29, the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault released its inaugural report on sexual assault on college campuses. The report comes after a series of widely publicized sexual assault cases at our peer institutions like Harvard, Columbia and Brown, in which students have charged their administrations with failing to provide justice for sexual assault survivors.

The White House report aims to strengthen federal enforcement of sexual assault legislation, and provide schools with additional tools to combat a problem that continues to plague colleges across the nation. Its first and primary recommendation is that schools begin to administer “climate surveys,” in which students anonymously report their experiences with sexual assault. The survey helps to measure not only the frequency of sexual assault on campus, but also student perceptions of that climate and knowledge of available resources. The White House has provided a free survey-guide, and “urges schools to show they’re serious about the problem by conducting the survey next year (2014-2015).” Concurrently, the Justice Department is beginning a pilot program at Rutgers. At the end of that trial, it plans to explore the option of requiring schools to conduct a survey in 2016.

On May 1, the U.S. Department of Education followed on the White House report by releasing a list of 55 schools under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights for alleged mishandling of sexual assault and harassment. Princeton is among those schools under investigation. Particularly in light of this fact, the Editorial Board see no need for Princeton to wait until next year before taking action on the White House’s recommendations.

The Editorial Board recommends that the University require graduating seniors to complete a supplemental questionnaire on sexual assault before graduation. As part of the “Check-Out” process, Princeton requires graduating seniors to take a slew of mandatory surveys — including a general survey on the Princeton experience and more specific questionnaires such as one on international opportunities — and the Board believes that a sexual assault climate survey could readily be added.  While we recommend that the survey has an “opt-out” button to insure sensitivity toward sexual assault survivors, it should otherwise comply with the White House’s guide, which provides clear instruction in respect to polling methodology and offers a mélange of questions Princeton can draw upon. The results of the survey, in aggregated form, should be open to the public.

Princeton’s late finishing date is seen by many as a curse, but now, it presents an opportunity. Princeton can pilot a sexual assault survey this year so it can be perfected for next academic year. Further, polling the graduating class will provide a means of gathering input from of a group of students who have had the “full” Princeton experience, and can thus offer a valuable perspective.

Measuring the scope of the problem is a critical first step in addressing sexual assault at Princeton. According to the White House’s survey, “one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college.” Publicizing the extent of the problem may make survivors more comfortable coming forward. Beyond that, the anonymous survey in and of itself will likely present a form of healing for some. As the White House report notes, studies suggests that many college-aged students actually report mental benefits from partaking in surveys on interpersonal violence. In that same vein, Princeton’s climate survey may bring some students comfort that they are contributing to a solution by sharing experiences they are not comfortable discussing freely .

Further, a climate survey may help improve Princeton’s response to sexual assault cases. Thus, the Board recommends that the survey measures how the University has responded to sexual assault cases, in order to expose any injustices. While publicized isolated cases provide powerful narratives of mismanagement, aggregated numbers help to illustrate broader trends. The survey should also measure students’ knowledge of existing resources and campus policies to make sure that communication efforts are proceeding effectively.

We would like to highlight that while participating in a survey could be part of recovery for some sexual assault survivors, we recognize that participation may cause distress to others, who feel they are forced to re-live their experience of victimization. As such, the University should offer an opt-out button for the entire survey, and also for each individual question. This methodology is already in practice for Princeton’s system for conducting Course Evaluations, and can be easily implemented here.

As an anonymous column in The Daily Princetonian noted, “rape culture” continues to afflict Princeton’s campus. By acting now, the University would send a powerful message to the community that it is committed to tackling the problem of sexual assault.

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