Responding to complaints that universities have fallen short in policing sexual assaults on their campuses, the White House announced a series of measures Tuesday intended to pressure college officials to step up efforts.
The Obama administration wants universities to conduct "campus climate" surveys beginning next year and to clarify sexual assault policies so that victims know where to turn for help. The government is also creating a website, NotAlone.gov, that it says will help victims file federal complaints and access data on federal investigations.
One in five female students is sexually assaulted at college, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but only a small percentage of those incidents are reported, administration officials say. The guidelines by a White House task force follow high-profile cases at Yale, Amherst, Dartmouth and other schools.
In Maryland, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating a possible violation of Title IX sexual violence response requirements at Frostburg State University. Other Maryland universities say they already have taken steps to update their sexual assault policies.
"I think there's a misconception out there that campuses aren't really concerned about this, and that couldn't be further from the truth," said Deb Moriarty, the vice president for student affairs at Towson University. "This has been a very hot topic for us and one that we continue to grapple with."
Moriarty said students often think of sexual assault as an attack by a stranger. She said it is the university's job to educate them about the more common danger of an assault by an acquaintance.
Frostburg spokeswoman Liz Medcalf declined to comment on the investigation by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. She said the university is "aware that it involves a sexual assault that occurred off campus in 2013."
Representatives with the Office for Civil Rights visited Frostburg's campus for two days this month, Medcalf said. They held focus groups with student athletes, the Student Government Association, faculty and others about sexual violence and sexual harassment.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, confirmed the investigation, and said it was the only current investigation at a Maryland college. He declined to comment further.
A former Frostburg student who said she was sexually assaulted by another student off campus last year lauded the Obama task force's recommendations, which she described as overdue. The Baltimore Sun does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
The former student said she filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights because she was not satisfied with how campus officials handed her case.
"It was like everything was geared toward making his life easier rather than mine," she said.
The woman said a disciplinary hearing was held two months after her rape. She said the university suspended her attacker for the fall semester. She said he harassed her on campus throughout last spring.
The woman said the university did not adequately explain her rights or respond properly when her rapist harassed her. "The whole idea is to feel like you're not a victim afterward," she said.
The woman said she is starting a nonprofit sexual assault prevention group.
"I told my family if I had known what I knew now I would have avoided that whole process," the woman said. "It ruined a lot of my life last year."
Medcalf, the Frostburg spokeswoman, declined to comment on the woman's account, citing federal privacy guidelines. She said the university recognizes sexual assault as a "serious problem" and has mandatory sexual assault prevention training for students. An advisory council to the university's president is developing recommendations for improvements, she said.
The proposals unveiled by the White House on Tuesday are only recommendations. Vice President Joe Biden said the administration will look for ways to require schools to take action by 2016 — potentially by leveraging federal funds, or asking Congress to step in.
"We all know that many of our schools just aren't safe," said Biden, a longtime advocate for measures to address sexual assault and domestic violence. "We have to do everything in our power to protect them — these are our children."
College officials in Maryland said they were reviewing the recommendations of the White House task force on sexual assault. Some said they have already taken steps to update their sexual assault policies after changes last year to federal requirements for reporting crimes on campus, and a 2011 letter from the Office for Civil Rights on how colleges can combat sexual violence.