Feb 212014

White HouseAs has been well publicized, President Barack Obama recently established a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The overarching goals of this group, by order of the President, are:

(i) providing examples of instructions, policies, and protocols for institutions, including: rape and sexual assault policies; prevention programs; crisis intervention and advocacy services; complaint and grievance procedures; investigation protocols; adjudicatory procedures; disciplinary sanctions; and training and orientation modules for students, staff, and faculty;

(ii) measuring the success of prevention and response efforts at institutions, whether through compliance with individual policies or through broader assessments of campus climate, attitudes and safety, and providing the public with this information;

(iii) maximizing the Federal Government’s effectiveness in combating campus rape and sexual assault by, among other measures, making its enforcement activities transparent and accessible to students and prospective students nationwide; and

(iv) promoting greater coordination and consistency among the agencies and offices that enforce the Federal laws addressing campus rape and sexual assault and support improved campus responses to sexual violence.

Shortly after the formation of the task force was announced the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management (NCHERM) released a “rapid response” statement welcoming such a dialogue, and hoping that the government would focus more on education and prevention of sexual assault. This was followed by an open letter from NCHERM founder Brett Sokolow to President Obama, similarly calling on the President for an emphasis on education and prevention, as well as a sustained government commitment to assist higher education.

In order to collect feedback from a myriad of perspectives, the Task Force has convened a number of “listening sessions.” One such session was held earlier today for approximately 1,100 campus law enforcement, local law enforcement, student conduct personnel, campus conduct boards, and Title IX coordinators. I took advantage of the opportunity to attend the listening session, and have offered the following statement to Vice President Biden and the Task Force:

Mr. Vice President and distinguished members of the task force,

My name is Rick Olshak and I have served as a student conduct practitioner and consultant for the past twenty-four years, including serving as President of the Association for Student Conduct Administration in 2001. I wish to utilize my brief commentary today to highlight three important points.

First, let me state unequivocally that I was thankful for the Dear Colleague Letter of April 2011 from OCR. While I am of the mindset that most student affairs practitioners sought to create climates where sexual offenses could be reported and fairly resolved, it only took the actions of a handful of people in our profession to cast doubt in the minds of those who have been victimized on our campuses. I welcome the civil rights lens brought forth by OCR and believe it was an excellent starting point for my colleagues.

However, let me be clear that if the goal of the government was to get the attention of higher education, they have it. Campuses across the nation have worked diligently since 2011 to improve campus responses, and the situation is dramatically improved. The policy and compliance aspect of the DCL is on the right path.

Second, if there is an area where we are lacking, it is in the need to develop strategies and tools for education and prevention. To this end, as a colleague of mine has already noted in a letter to the President, what we need are tools, resources, grants, studies, online training courses, conferences and other resources on the prevention of sexual assault, in addition to our need for clarity and transparency from the federal government as it relates to policy and enforcement issues.

Finally, there are those who present themselves as protectors of civil liberties who claim that student conduct processes are not legalistic enough, and that accused students are somehow being railroaded by “kangaroo courts” and are unfair to men accused of sexual misconduct. This perspective is intentionally deceptive, and only serves to propagate a “boys will be boys” mentality that minimizes the victimization of women on American campuses. I have experienced too many cases in my career where male students have felt entitled to sex, and that this entitlement superseded any rights of the female involved or any need to gain informed consent. What we need is an emphasis on education and prevention, not a false dialogue on free speech and an alleged attack on men. Unfortunately it has been my experience that legislators and government officials often grant civil liberties interests equal to or preferential treatment than higher education professionals. For any efforts in education, prevention, reporting and enforcement to be successful, higher education must have a seat at the table, and the government must recognize that this issue requires a long-term commitment, not one limited to a short-term task force.

I applaud the federal government’s involvement on this issue, and believe the government has good intentions in facilitating a constructive dialogue. Thank you for your consideration of my remarks.

ASCA President Matt Gregory and ASCA Past President Chris Loschiavo both offered some excellent comments to the Task Force, as did a number of other callers. In particular, Gregory raised an important point on needing to engage in conversations with men on the issue of sexual assault. It remains to be seen what the final report to the President will include, and whether or not the federal government will begin improving its response on the ground to practitioners through OCR, and whether or not the government will heed our call for significant efforts and resources surrounding education and prevention. Ultimately, I believe I can speak for my colleagues in saying that we all wish that incidents involving sexual assault could be avoided through education and an altering of mindsets surrounding sexual behavior. However, we are also prepared to address any and all incidents where student conduct violates the rights of others. Student conduct processes on the whole have improved dramatically in this regard since 2011, though there remain holdouts. In my view, those holdouts should be pursued by the federal government and treated as the exceptions that they represent.