Biden calls on students to keep campuses ‘safe from a threat of abuse and assault as well’ as Covid-19 as they return this fall
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Biden calls on students to keep campuses ‘safe from a threat of abuse and assault as well’ as Covid-19 as they return this fall

President Joe Biden on Thursday highlighted the responsibility that college students have to ensure their campuses are safe not just from the Covid-19 pandemic, but also “safe from a threat of abuse and assault as well,” in remarks to young people at a summit hosted by It’s On Us, the college sexual assault prevention and advocacy organization Biden helped start during his time as vice president.

Biden, noting the excitement college students may feel when they return to campus this fall after many schools were remote due to the pandemic, stressed the importance of being vigilant and responsible when it comes to on-campus dating culture.

“I know how excited college students are to return to campus, getting back to spending time with friends and participating in activities, especially after the challenges of the past year. But as you do, please remember, you have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has a safe return to campus. Safe not just from the virus, which you can protect yourself from by getting vaccinated — hope you all have — but safe from a threat of abuse and assault as well,” he said during remarks at the “It’s On Us National Student Leadership Summit.”

Biden’s plea comes as sexual assault prevention advocates and experts highlight the potential risk of violence as students return to campus life after a year and a half of lockdowns and lack of social activity.

According to Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us, each year organizations like hers worry about what they call the “red zone,” the period of time between the start of the first semester and Thanksgiving, when there is a heightened risk of sexual violence on college campuses because of back-to-school parties and Greek-life rush, paired with a lack of familiarity on campus, especially for first-year and transfer students.

“What we’re concerned about in particular is that the effect of Covid-19 and the shutdowns we’ve seen with college campuses over the past year, year and a half, are actually going to make the red zone worse this year,” Vitchers said in an interview with CNN.

“We have this situation where we have first-year students coming to campus who we know are traditionally most vulnerable during the red zone, but we also have returning sophomores who might academically be in their second year but are truly in their first-year experience because they did not have a first-year social experience. There’s this idea of making up for lost time,” she said.

Since 2014, It’s On Us — the result of an Obama-Biden White House task force — has sought to support college students in sexual assault prevention. From its launch, the initiative has worked to bring young men into conversations about on-campus violence and prevention.

“I knew then, and we know now, that we needed to change, change the culture, when it comes to sexual assault. And changing the culture requires all of us, all of us, to get engaged — especially young men, who too often stand on the sidelines. To step in, speak out, make sure everybody knows your campus does not tolerate sexual abuse,” Biden said.

The group’s annual summit works to equip student leaders with tools and techniques to lead peer-to-peer sexual assault prevention on campuses across the country.

Vitchers said this year, in particular, she is grateful for Biden’s commitment to the movement to prevent sexual assault and support survivors.

“Having President Biden as a part of the summit is critical to elevating the importance of sexual assault prevention for our students and university administrations,” she said.

“It’s important that students know President Biden has their back when it comes to campus sexual assault prevention and survivor support.”

For his part, Kirwin Seger, a 23-year-old masters student at Western Illinois University and a regional leader with It’s On Us, said he thinks “it’s absolutely fantastic” that Biden spoke to students Thursday about the importance of sexual assault prevention on college campuses and called the President’s continued support “a huge step for the Biden administration.”

“This is a big gesture that there is hope and a plan moving forward that there is a partnership that can hopefully lead to a better system to prevent dating violence on college campuses,” Seger said.

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