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Virginia panel issues proposals to fight campus sex assaults

Virginia Attorney Gen. Mark Herring, right, gives a copy of the report by the Governors Task Force on Sexual Violence on college Campuses to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, during the final meeting of the group at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, May 28, 2015. The task force headed by Herring issued 21 recommendations to help combat sexual violence on college campuses. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Late last year, the University of Virginia became the epicenter in the debate over campus sexual assaults, sparked by a sensational national magazine story — later discredited — that claimed to give an account of a gang rape at a fraternity there.

Thursday, state leaders sought to put Virginia in the lead on combatting college campus sexual violence with the release of 21 recommendations to address it.

While the recommendations largely build on existing programs and require little new legislation, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he hoped they would make “Virginia a national leader in combatting sexual violence on our college campuses.”

McAuliffe actually established the Task Force on Combatting Campus Sexual Violence months before the discredited Rolling Stone magazine article, but the notorious account was invoked directly and indirectly as the recommendations were presented.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring, who chaired the task force, called it a “colossal journalistic failure,” and acknowledged there were fears it would set back the work of the task force. However, it only strengthened its resolve, he said.

“We recognized that the entire state — parents, students, teachers, everyone who has an interest in this — was counting on us to give it our best and we did that,” Herring said in an interview. “We were not going to be deterred from our mission from making good solid recommendations to end campus sexual assault in Virginia …”

People who work with victims of domestic and sexual assault were not ready Thursday to agree that the 107-page report makes Virginia a national leader, but they called it a step in the right direction.

“Virginia should be proud of the leadership that it’s taken on this issue,” said Kate McCord, communications director with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. “We’ve had a difficult couple of years on Virginia’s college campuses.”

Among the key recommendations:

— Require public and private higher education institutions to establish sexual assault response teams representing a cross-section of the campus community.

— Require colleges and universities to formalize agreements with local law enforcement officials on preventing and responding to sexual assault.

— Create campus comprehensive prevention plans that increase awareness, change attitudes and modify high-risk behaviors such as alcohol abuse.

— Make law enforcement prevention efforts part of coordinated campus and community sexual assault prevention.

— Use emerging technologies, infographics and online portals to improve and increase options for reporting sexual violence.

— Create a public awareness campaign, called “Start by Believing,” to encourage victims to report assaults.

McCord was especially pleased with a recommendation that the state Department of Education offer programs on healthy relationships and “bystander intervention skills.”

“Prevention doesn’t start at the college age,” McCord said. “Prevention has to start when kids are young, in elementary school.”

The task force also calls for oversight to ensure the recommendations are put into practice. It recommends, for instance, that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia monitor the progress of the campus programs and the creation of a permanent advisory committee that would include the secretary of education.

Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University and a member of the task force, said “sexual violence is an issue on every college campus.”

“And honestly, it’s an issue that has not improved over the last few decades,” said Cabrera, whose campus has 34,000 students. “All this level of attention and scrutiny is much needed.”

McAuliffe formed the task force months after the White House created a similar panel. Federal data show that reports of forcible sex offenses on college campuses rose 50 percent between 2009 and 2012.

The problem of campus sexual assaults has received more attention because of Title IX investigations involving several Virginia schools and the disappearance and slaying of U.Va. student Hannah Graham last fall.

McAuliffe accepted the task force recommendations and also ceremonially signed legislation from the last General Assembly session aimed at campus sexual assaults. One bill requires mutual aid agreements between campus police and law enforcement agencies on the investigation of sexual assaults.

The 30 members of the task force included college administrators, medical professionals, law enforcement and victim advocates.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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