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Taking a stand against sexual violence

NCAA joins White House campaign to hold everyone on campuses responsible for preventing sex assault

President Barack Obama steps off stage to hug Lilly Jay, a sexual assault survivor, during an It’s On Us campaign announcement at the White House. Obama unveiled a new campaign to change the way people think about campus sexual assault. Photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Images

The issue has plagued college campuses for decades. Even the law that would help advocates make their case is 40 years old. But it was just three years ago that Tina Tchen, White House assistant to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to Michelle Obama, noticed a shift in how higher education deals with sexual assault.

In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued guidance for colleges and universities explaining their obligation under Title IX to prevent and respond to sexual assault on campus. The stricter interpretation of the federal civil rights law – created in 1972 to prohibit sex discrimination in education – attempted to ease the burden on survivors, Tchen said.  

“The guidance from 2011 has led to this terrific student activism that we have seen blossom on campus,” Tchen said. “We have survivors very bravely speaking out, activists on campus holding schools accountable.”

Building on that momentum, the White House – in conjunction with the NCAA and other partners – launched a new campaign Sept. 19 aimed at leading everyone on college campuses to take ownership of sexual assault prevention and response. 

The campaign, called It’s On Us, aims to move the conversation beyond just the victim and attacker to involve the entire campus community – classmates and professors, teammates and coaches, men and women. 

“It’s on all of us to change the culture that asks the wrong questions,” Biden said at the White House kickoff event. “It is never the right question for a woman to ask, ‘What did I do?’ The question is, ‘Why was that done to me, and will someone do something about it?’” 

To create positive social pressure, campaign activists are seeking the influence of student leaders, from those in government to fraternities and sororities to athletics. 

As part of its role in the campaign, the NCAA will broadcast It’s On Us public service announcements at championship events and will host a half-day educational session for member schools at the NCAA Convention in January. The campaign encourages individual supporters to take the It’s On Us pledge online, film video testimonials and spread awareness on social media using the hashtag #itsonus. Campuswide efforts may include incorporating a school logo into the customizable It’s On Us logo to share online and forming coalitions with relevant student organizations. 

The Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women will distribute more than $6 million in grants to help fund university sexual assault prevention and response programs. The Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12, U.S. Olympic Committee and student body leaders from nearly 200 colleges and universities are also partnering on the initiative. 

The campaign is the latest in a series of NCAA efforts to combat sexual assault. In August, the highest NCAA governance body, the Executive Committee, passed a resolution stating its expectation that athletics departments must work with other campus leaders to combat the issue. Then in September, the Association released a handbook to further assist administrators with their approaches to preventing and responding to sexual violence. 

“Many of our students and student-athletes are coming to campus with a history of exposure to sexual assault and interpersonal violence, even if they weren’t victims themselves,” said Debbie Wilson, lead author of the NCAA handbook and a George Mason University associate athletics director for academic services and a sports psychologist. Citing that approximately 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted in college, she added: “The cost to our students and student-athletes on our campuses and in society is tremendous, and it’s unacceptable.”

The statistics are all too real for those who have waded deep into the issue. Yet Tchen has reason to be hopeful for progress. 

“The kind of student leadership and passion that I have seen on campuses is very exciting and very inspiring,” she said. “I think the possibility of making that culture change is upon us.”