WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday announced detailed guidance for colleges on how to deal with sexual assaults, winning praise from advocates of victims and some higher education officials, but renewing concerns from others about protections for the rights of the accused.
Victims of sexual assault on campus and their advocates have become increasingly vocal in demanding tougher action, more protection and better reporting since the Obama administration first called attention to the issue in a 2011 letter putting administrations on notice that changes were necessary.
But college administrators and lawyers who advise them warn that the circumstances of such assaults are often murky, involving too much alcohol, uncertain recollection and no impartial witnesses. Some school officials are wary that the pendulum not swing so far that students accused of assaults are denied a fair hearing.
The steps put forward by a White House task force include clarified rules governing confidentiality of accusers, surveys to gauge the extent of sexual assaults, guidance on model policies for handling allegations, plans to develop prevention efforts and a website with college data on sexual assaults.
Advocates for victims said the Obama administration’s proposals, while they may appear modest, clearly spell out steps that colleges must take to respond to allegations of sexual assault.
“What I really see is basically no more excuses,” said Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. “The tools are there and the administration is trying to make it as easy as possible for schools to do right by their students.”
Graves said the recommendations did not infringe on the rights of the accused. “No one wants to trample over any rights,” she said. “But up to this point there has been a laser-like focus on the rights of the accused and very little attention to the rights of survivors. We are pretty far from the pendulum actually swinging.”