It pains me that there is no shortage of examples suggesting a dire need for reform in how sexual assault survivors are treated on college campuses. Take for instance Amherst’s response to a sexual assault case, whose policy ‘treats alleged rapists better than laptop thieves,’ or the survivor of assault who faced retaliation for filing a federal complaint against the University of North Carolina.

So when I heard that Obama announced a new plan to combat this depressing trend, all I could think was ‘Hallelujah!!!’

Yesterday, President Obama announced the creation of a task force to protect students from sexual assault, which he described as “an epidemic,” particularly on college campuses. This new initiative – a collaboration between the White House Council on Women and Girls and the Office of the Vice President – will facilitate ‘information sharing among key federal agencies’ about best practices to prevent sexual assault and provide support for survivors.

A White House report [PDF] released yesterday, entitled ‘Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action’, states that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted at college, but only 12% of survivors report their assault. And of that small percentage of incidents reported, most of the offenders never see arrest or prosecution. The report describes the devastating impacts of sexual assault on survivor’s health, both physically and psychologically: sexual assault is often followed by depression, substance abuse, and physical ailments like chronic pain and even diabetes.

Unfortunately, there are a number of social forces that discourage women and men from reporting sexual assaults. The report specifically mentions police bias and lack of training in investigation of sexual assault and rape as well as our culture that too often dismisses sexual assault and rape as a ‘misunderstanding’, or the victim’s fault.

The mission of the new task force is to formulate recommendations over the next 90 days for policies and practices that prevent sexual assault and rape to begin with. Promoting a harassment-free environment on college campuses will help schools comply with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funding. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are considered forms of prohibited discrimination, and schools have obligations to prevent harassment and assault and address incidents promptly and effectively.

This issue is finally getting the attention it deserves, and the fact that Obama is making this a national concern is positively thrilling.

“Sexual assault is pervasive because our culture still allows it to persist,” the report says. I could not agree more. It’s high time that we crack down and promote a harassment-free environment for all students. Amen!

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