A nation that prides itself on fighting the abuse of power has an obligation to prevent sexual violence in schools and on college campuses, Vice President Joe Biden said Monday as he kicked off a nationwide awareness campaign on schools' responsibilities and victims' rights.
Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the University of New Hampshire on Monday to announce the initiative. Colleges and public and private K-12 schools will receive letters outlining their duties under Title IX, the federal civil rights law banning sexual discrimination, harassment and violence.
The regulations are not new, but the effort to promote them is. Officials say schools need comprehensive guidelines for filing complaints, helping victims, disciplining perpetrators and monitoring campus climates in the wake of an attack.
Biden described the initiative as a renewed emphasis on what he called a national collective value: fighting the abuse of power by individuals or institutions.
"We as Americans have said from the outset that's wrong. It's simply wrong," he told a crowd of about 600. "We've said to the rest of the world: Measure us by how well we abide by that value. I believe that is the measure of the decency of a nation."
UNH was chosen for the announcement because of its highly regarded violence prevention efforts and victim support services, including 24-hour victim assistance. But Duncan described other colleges where victims are ostracized, not allowed to call witnesses during disciplinary proceedings and are prevented from speaking out.
"As caring adults, as parents, and as leaders, we must deal the brutal truth. The facts surrounding these incidents are shocking," he said. "The misplaced sense of values and priorities in some of these cases is staggering. ... We have to do better, and we have to do better now."
Nearly 20 percent of college women will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault, as will about 6 percent of undergraduate men, according to data provided by the Education Department.
Younger students are vulnerable, too. The department's Office of Civil Rights received 35 complaints last year alleging sexual violence, about two dozen of them at the K-12 level.
There have been 17 complaints filed in just the first quarter of this year _ a 183 percent increase _ and about 10 were at the K-12 level. The agency began using sexual violence as a complaint category at the start of the Obama administration.
"Every school would like to believe it is immune from sexual violence, but the facts suggest otherwise," Duncan said.
Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women, said the awareness campaign could be very valuable for school administrators.
"There's a lot of schools out there that are very well meaning and want to do the right thing, but these situations are so complex that having more concrete guidelines ... will be incredibly useful," Maatz said.
Biden praised UNH for its Bringing in the Bystander program, which teaches passers-by to intervene safely in potentially dangerous situations. The program has been adopted on other campuses, and last fall three UNH faculty members briefed the White House on their research on violence against women.
"You guys have an absolute obligation as men to speak up," Biden said, directly addressing the men in the audience. "You want to measure your manhood? Measure it based on the gumption you have to speak up."
Monday's announcement in Durham comes on the heels of allegations of a sexually hostile environment at Yale University, but officials say the timing is coincidental.
The Office of Civil Rights announced Friday that would investigate the Ivy League school after receiving a 26-page complaint from students accusing the university of failing to adequately respond to sexual harassment concerns.
Matheson reported from Philadelphia.