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Editorial: Turning up the heat on campus sex assaults

A Penn State University student walks across campus

A Penn State University student walks across campus in front of Old Main on main campus in State College, Pa on July 12, 2012. Credit: AP

Now that the White House is shining a bright light on the scourge of sexual assaults on college campuses, schools turning a blind eye to the problem should have no place to hide.

One in five women is sexually assaulted on campus, according to a White House task force. That's a national disgrace. It demands the attention President Barack Obama is giving it via a new initiative that empowers victims and pushes schools to confront the rising tide of sexual assaults. When assaults go unpunished, the guilty continue their education while victims often leave school to avoid their attackers.

The first step in solving the problem is to document its scope. To do that, Obama will provide colleges with a tool kit for a "campus climate survey" that would allow participants to anonymously report assaults. That's the No. 1 request of victims and their advocates, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who championed legislation to force the U.S. military to prosecute sexual assaults within its ranks. Congress should make an annual survey mandatory and the data should be public.

A website -- -- will empower victims by explaining their legal rights, directing them to community resources and tracking enforcement.

The administration will also highlight best practices at colleges and universities and provide guidance to help schools craft or strengthen policies on sexual misconduct. Model policies for reporting, investigating and adjudicating sexual assaults will assist schools that want to do the right thing. And it will provide a yardstick that advocates can use to hold schools accountable if they don't measure up.

Schools have a vested interest in wishing sexual assaults away. Addressing attacks creates a record of crimes on campus that some fear could tarnish a university's reputation. Students might go elsewhere. But hiding a problem won't make it go away.