Sexual assault task force holds first meeting

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Source - Richmond Times Dispatch

With the disappearance of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham fresh on their minds, state leaders in higher education, college students, victim advocates and law enforcement officials convened in Richmond on Thursday to address the issue of sexual violence on campus.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe kicked off the first meeting of the task force, telling participants that the students of the commonwealth are entitled to “live and learn in an environment that is free of the threat of sexual violence.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, selected to chair the task force, said statewide collaboration and “a national conversation is long overdue” on the issue of campus sexual assaults.

“Just like any other parent, I worry all the time about whether they are safe and whether they are making good decisions away from home,” said Herring, the father of two college-age children.

The attorney general said the goal of the task force is threefold: to find the most efficient ways to prevent and reduce sexual violence on campus, to make sure the response to the incidents is “survivor-centered,” and to ensure that law enforcement agencies involved seek justice and make victims feel safe and respected.

“If a student has been a victim, he or she should never feel further victimized,” Herring said.

The task force was divided into three subcommittees that will meet monthly. Each group was assigned a member of the governor’s Cabinet as well as a lawyer from the attorney general’s office. The full task force is scheduled to meet again in January.

“Together, we can do more and we can do better,” said Secretary of Education Anne Holton, who said Graham’s disappearance puts “a human face” on the issue.

Jesse L. Matthew Jr., 32, of Albemarle County has been charged with abducting Graham, who went missing Sept. 13. Matthew, who is in custody, has been forensically linked to slain Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, who disappeared after leaving a concert in Charlottesville in October 2009.

Beyond the most recent tragedy to befall a Virginia college student, state officials said the numbers on campus assaults and the impact they have on victims argue for a swift, coordinated and comprehensive response to the issue.

Dr. Jennifer Lee, deputy secretary of Health and Human Resources, cited statistics showing sexual assault victims are three times more likely to suffer depression, four times more likely to commit suicide and six times more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran promised the involvement of all state agencies under his authority, from commonwealth’s attorneys to the Virginia State Police, state forensic labs and the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Moran said national statistics showing 6,824 sexual assaults between January 2013 and June of this year — but only 83 being reported on campuses — demonstrate that college attacks are significantly under-reported.

He said the stigma for coming forward needs to be addressed.

“Our responsibility is to make our campuses as safe as possible for our children to learn,” Moran said.

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