Biden cites progress on campus sexual assault, but says there's 'so much farther to go'

Vice president highlights public awareness campaign in University of Illinois appearance

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Vice President Joe Biden speaking at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Vice President Biden/Twitter

Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to the University of Illinois Thursday to spotlight the Obama administration’s latest campaign to combat campus sexual assault — the topic of a groundbreaking investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.

Speaking before a rousing crowd of students and administrators at a recreation center on the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus, Biden urged that everyone in the audience — especially men — pledge to prevent what he called a “vicious form of violence” at schools nationwide. A long-time crusader against gender-based violence, who authored the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act, the vice president spoke passionately about the subject of sexual assault on college campuses.

“The culture has come a long way, but it has so much farther to go,” said Biden, his voice rising. “Until we make a pariah of all those who believe they have a right to say, ‘She asked for it,’ we won’t make the progress we have to make.”

He added, “It is within our power to end sexual abuse on every campus in every community. There really is no excuse.”

The Illinois rally, held in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, celebrated the White House’s “It’s on Us” awareness campaign, which encourages students and administrators not only to respond to sexual assault on college campuses, but also prevent it. Launched last fall, the education effort features celebrity-studded public-service announcements geared toward college-aged men. According to the White House, more than 300 colleges and universities have hosted student-led rallies, pledge drives and similar “It’s on Us” events. Biden praised the Urbana-Champaign student body for doing more than any other campus to implement the program.

The campaign is but the latest action on a variety of fronts to curb what Biden, President Barack  Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have called an “epidemic” of sexual violence on college campuses. In April 2104, a White House task force announced recommendations for helping schools respond to the problem, launching a website, NotAlone.gov. Within days, the Education Department released for the first time a list of every college and university under investigation for possible violations of federal law because of the way they have handled claims of sexual assault; to date, the list comprises around 100 schools.

The Obama administration has issued stricter federal guidelines and taken up the cause more generally in the years since the Center’s investigation. Published in a six-part series starting in 2009, “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice” — done in collaboration with National Public Radio — showed that campus judicial proceedings regarding allegations of sexual assault were often confusing, shrouded in secrecy, and marked by lengthy delays. Those who reported sexual assaults encountered a litany of institutional barriers that either assured their silence or left them feeling victimized again. Even students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults often faced little punishment, while their victims’ lives were turned upside down.

The issue has continued to attract both attention and controversy. Male students accused of campus sexual assault and some of their lawyers have charged that the adjudication process is unfair to them. More recently, there has been a national furor over a now-discredited article published in the December 2014 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Earlier this month, Columbia University released a scathing audit chronicling how the magazine’s editorial staff had failed to undertake what it described as “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to verify a student’s account of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.

At the Illinois campus, though, Biden took the opportunity to call on school administrators to “step up” to combat sexual violence, noting that “all too often, institutions re-victimize the victim.”

“Colleges and universities . . . have a legal obligation and a moral obligation to protect,” he said. “This isn’t abstract.”

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