If you heard President Barack Obama speak last month about the epidemic of rape on college campuses, chances are it was the first you learned of it. And that's a big part of the problem: Too often, on too many campuses -- even in California -- sexual assaults and harassment are swept under the rug and victims are denied the pursuit of justice.

But courageous students lately are speaking out, filing federal complaints and demanding changes in how campuses handle these cases. Obama has given a federal task force three months to figure out what colleges and the government should do.

Sofie Karasek, who was sexually assaulted during her freshman year at UC Berkeley, attended the UC Regents meeting to speak out against the UC
Sofie Karasek, who was sexually assaulted during her freshman year at UC Berkeley, attended the UC Regents meeting to speak out against the UC system's sexual assault policies at the UC Regents meeting at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Jan. 22, 2014. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

The California Legislature is auditing how UC Berkeley, UCLA, CSU Chico and San Diego State respond to reports. And Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, has proposed requiring colleges to report all violent crimes and hate crimes to local police if the victim agrees.

This attention is long overdue. A recent federal study found that one in five college women are victims of sexual assault, but just 12 percent of incidents are reported. Victims often fear they won't be believed or think reporting will just make it more traumatic.

The Bay Area News Group's Katy Murphy reported recently that the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating complaints of mishandled claims at some 35 campuses. Gatto's bill was inspired by allegations that Occidental College had discouraged women from reporting sexual assaults and failed to disclose required reports to the federal government.


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At Berkeley one student described the system as "totally insulting." Alleged perpetrators get to choose whether to have their case heard in a formal hearing or in informal talks. And before last fall, when the campus first adopted official policies for these cases, victims complained they were left in the dark about their results, which would violate federal rules.

By contrast, Stanford University realized it had a problem a few years ago and made improvements. It has seen an increase in the number of reported assaults, a signal that victims now feel they'll be treated fairly.

Schools are clearly struggling with this. So when the federal task force reports back, we hope it includes detailed policy recommendations colleges can adopt. It should also strengthen requirements for federal officials to publicize the results of their investigations, so students can be informed and colleges will have more incentive to improve.

The ultimate goal is to change the culture that has allowed this epidemic to grow in the most unlikely setting. But until we get there, we have to make sure all victims are treated fairly and respectfully, and that colleges are held accountable when they're not.