Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Morehouse College during a three-college tour to mobilize students to take action to prevent sexual assault on campuses on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015 in Atlanta. The tour is part of the “It’s On Us’ campaign started last year by the White House and Generation Progress to engage campus communities in preventing sexual assaults. New federal regulations have been implemented mandating stricter reporting of sex crimes on campus as the White House has urged colleges to crack down on sexual assault. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com

Vice president Joe Biden urges students to change campus rape climate

Vice President Joe Biden urged Atlanta college students on Tuesday to change the culture on their campuses to create an environment where there is zero tolerance for sexual assaults.

Biden, who authored the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, said the rate of violence against women has fallen across the country except on college campuses.

“We have a cultural problem. We have to change the standard of decency by which we measure ourselves,” Biden said. “The standard with which we have to measure ourselves is if we do not have consent, it is rape. Period.”

Biden delivered that message at Morehouse College, where he spoke to a crowd of students mainly from Morehouse and Spelman colleges as part of the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign. Morehouse was the final stop on Biden’s three-campus swing that began Monday at the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and continued Tuesday morning at South Carolina’s Clemson University before his afternoon stop in Atlanta.

Biden’s visit comes as more sexual assaults are being reported at Georgia’s largest colleges and universities. Some say the increase reflects more aggressive efforts to encourage victims to come forward and seek help.

Last year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported about the lack of prosecution in campus rape cases. The AJC reported at the time that campus police at nine of Georgia’s largest universities — including Morehouse — logged 152 allegations of rapes and sodomies since 2010, according to law enforcement documents. Not one resulted in criminal charges.

With national attention on campus sex assault, Morehouse was thrown into the spotlight in 2013 when three basketball players were arrested and accused of raping an 18-year-old Spelman College student. Police records say the three allegedly had non-consenting sex with an 18-year-old who was “under the influence of an unknown substance.” Lawyers for the men tell a story of a drug- and alcohol-fueled evening in which the young woman had consenting sex with the athletes.

The case has lingered since then, and the Fulton County District attorney’s office has not said whether it will prosecute the students.

In the past three years, Morehouse officials have reported 16 allegations of forcible sexual assault on campus, four of them in 2014.

Before Biden took the stage, several students addressed the crowd including campus rape victim Kimberly Canter, a Spelman student who said three men assaulted her.

“I’m up here sharing my story not as victim but as survivor,” said an emotional Canter. “I have dedicated myself to being an advocate on issues surrounding sexual violence. It’s on me, it’s on you, and it’s on us.”

Much of the onus for changing the rape culture on campuses is dependent upon men, Biden said. Men are the perpetrators of sexual violence in most cases, and have the responsibility for first not committing the act, abiding by the strict standard of consent and reporting other men who may be violating women, he said.

“Being that (Morehouse) is an all-mall college, it made sense for him to say those things,” Morehouse student Johnnie Morris, 18, said after the speech. “I feel that men are more powerful than women so it is on us to change things.”

Biden extended the “It’s On Us” edict to a host of societal issues. Although he decided not to get into the 2016 presidential race, Biden sounded like a candidate delivering a stump speech advocating free education and an end to institutional racism in areas like housing, drug sentencing and law enforcement. He even got in a Black Lives Matter reference, telling the crowd there has to be a cultural change in the way blacks are treated.

“We can fix this,” repeated Biden. “We need you to keep us going.”

Biden seized on a theme, Morehouse alum and Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said after the speech, including things that plague our country, and what is “the basic fundamental requirement, which is that we treat all people with the respect they deserve.

As part of Tuesday’s event, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, who joined Biden and Morehouse President John Wilson on stage, pledged to match a $300,000 grant received by the college to add additional security cameras on campus to improve safety.

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