At American University, disturbing emails from male students denigrating women and making light of rape roil the campus. At Dartmouth College, the new president delivers a stern lecture about a dangerous culture of extreme drinking and sexual violence. At Columbia University, 23 students file federal complaints about a hostile school environment. At Harvard University, the student newspaper publishes a searing essay from a female student detailing how she suffered from a sexual assault while her assailant went unpunished.

What is so troubling about these incidents is that they are symptomatic of the inability of higher education to effectively deal with sexual violence perpetrated by students against students. We hope that guidelines released by a White House task force will lead to new resolve by college and university officials to tackle the problem.

The Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault published a 20-page report last month that aims for universities to be more active in trying to prevent sexual assaults and more effective in helping victims and dealing with their assailants. Included are recommendations for anonymous surveys about the sexual assault climate on campuses, the development of bystander intervention programs that engage men, and improved reporting and confidentiality protocols when assaults do occur.

The task force cited a 2007 Justice Department study that estimated that one in five college students has been assaulted but just 12 percent of such attacks are reported. Most occur in the freshman or sophomore year, most victims know their attackers and many cases occur when the women (who are the predominant victims) are drunk, drugged, passed out or otherwise incapacitated.

Cases of sexual assault, particularly those of acquaintance rape, can be difficult to investigate and adjudicate. Survivors are often reluctant to report the crime, sometimes believing they are to blame or won’t be believed or will be subject to reprisals. The he-said, she-said nature of the cases, with alchohol a factor and memories sometimes faulty, make local prosecutors wary, and the time-consuming criminal process doesn’t provide victims with the help they might need to get their lives and education back on track.

That’s why the role of college administrations in providing a safe education environment — collaborating with local law enforcement, promulgating and enforcing student codes of conduct, and offering support and services to students who say they have been assaulted while not trampling on the rights of the accused — is critical. Hopefully, the task force report, with its suggestions of best practices, along with the administration’s decision to publicize schools under investigation for civil rights violations in their handling of sexual abuse cases, will prompt colleges to take a hard look at the job they are doing and make needed changes.

If not, they run the risk of Congress mandating action, as some survivors and their advocates are urging. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who helped shine a spotlight on the military’s failings in dealing with sexual abuse in its ranks, have turned their attention to college campuses. As Vice President Joe Biden said about college sexual assault in releasing the White House report: “No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist.”

Editorial by The Washington Post

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