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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration had already been considered unusually tough on campuses that fail to address sexual assault, with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights opening and settling more Title IX investigations at colleges than ever before.

Many college administrators have said that they of course want to protect students – both victims and alleged perpetrators – as best they can. But they’ve also complained that OCR doesn’t fully understand the practical and cultural issues involved in addressing sexual assault on campuses, particularly when it comes to judicial affairs processes, and that OCR’s lack of transparency and clarification has created confusion regarding exactly what the office expects of them.

Now, much of that appears poised to change.

In a news conference announcing the formation of a White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault, Obama vowed to “work with” – not just dictate to – campus officials in a new initiative that appears to take federal enforcement another step further.

“We’re going to work with colleges and universities and educational institutions of all kinds across America to help them come up with better ways to prevent and respond to sexual assault on their campuses,” Obama said, “and then we’re going to help them put those plans into practice.”

But the intimate collaboration might stop there. While the task force will “consult with external stakeholders” including administrators and student groups, there is no official seat at the table for campus officials. Those spots are reserved for federal officials.

“My hope and intention is that every college president who personally has not been thinking about this is going to hear about this report and is going to go out and figure out who’s in charge on their campuses of responding properly, and what are their best practices, and are we doing everything that we should be doing,” Obama said. “If you’re not doing that right now, I want the students at the school to ask the president what he’s doing or what she’s doing.”

If the government is going to clarify what exactly it wants campuses to be doing – beyond the general policies outlined by OCR in its 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter – that’s a good thing, said Chris Loschiavo, associate dean of students at the University of Florida and president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. But actually including the practitioners would be even better, he said.

“I think there are opportunities here to partner with people who work with these issues on the ground level on a day-by-day basis,” Loschiavo said. “If it’s another group to tell institutions, ‘You’re not doing good enough,’ I don’t know how helpful that’s going to be.”

The Dear Colleague letter prompted policy reviews and changes at many institutions, but also flummoxed campus officials who are trying to balance student safety and justice with federal expectations. The letter laid out blanket expectations for all universities, regardless of size or location, but since then OCR has been silent save for resolution agreements with individual institutions, which the office is quick to point out are legally binding only for the campus in question – even at the University of Montana, where OCR referred to the agreement as a “blueprint” for colleges nationwide.

“It would be important for [the task force] to understand the challenges that are faced in trying to control the student populations and to combat this sexual assault issue,” said Ada Meloy, general counsel at the American Council on Education. “I would hope that any best practices that they come up with would be workable.”

The task force also promises to “improve transparency of the government’s enforcement activities,” “build on the federal government’s enforcement efforts to ensure that educational institutions comply fully with their legal obligations,” “increase the public’s awareness of an institution’s track record in addressing rape and sexual assault,” and “enhance coordination among federal agencies to hold schools accountable if they do not confront sexual violence on their campuses.”

According to a White House memorandum released Wednesday, the task force has 90 days to provide Obama with proposals and recommendations regarding effective policies, prevention and response efforts, improved federal enforcement transparency, and better coordination of agencies such as Education, Justice and Health and Human Services, all of which can play roles in campus assault investigations. Within a year, the memo says, and annually after that, the task force will report to the president on implementation efforts.

A new report (not specific to colleges) released in conjunction with the task force’s formation, which singles out assault on campuses as “a particular problem,” does not contain much if any new information on the issue: it notes that one in five college women has been sexually assaulted in college while only one in eight report it, that most are assaulted by acquaintances who are repeat offenders, and that alcohol often fuels dangerous situations.

But the issue has drawn new levels of scrutiny from the public and government, fueled in part by aggressive activism by students who, prior to the federal Dear Colleague letter, didn’t know they were guaranteed rights under Title IX and who’ve been taking their campuses to task for failing to deliver.

“I think probably the biggest legitimate criticism I hear from institutions is that, ‘We don’t know what’s expected of us; it has not been clearly articulated,' ” said S. Daniel Carter, director of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation’s 32 National Campus Safety Initiative. “From what I’ve seen, colleges and universities are hungering for guidance on how they can better protect their students and respond when something happens.”

The task force’s charges are not exactly groundbreaking –the Campus SaVE Act, enacted last March, stipulated that campuses be more transparent with crime data and that the Departments of Education, Justice and Health and Human Services would collect and disseminate best practices.

The Campus SaVE Act is part of the Violence Against Women Act, whose implementation is being discussed at Education Department negotiated rulemaking meetings this month. The rulemaking committee does include a number of campus officials (including Carter), and one of them, Dickinson College General Counsel Dana Scaduto, is hoping that whatever comes out of these various efforts, it’s all consistent with OCR’s Title IX guidance.

“It’s going to be important so that colleges and universities can fully understand their obligations,” she said.

Loschiavo, for one, is trying to get ASCA a formal seat on the task force.

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