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Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli Speaks at the
Department of Education’s Gender-Based Violence Summit


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you Catherine for the introduction.  And let me thank the Department of Education for hosting this summit and bringing us together to begin working on long-term, sustainable solutions to prevent gender-based violence among young people.  I am excited to be here today to talk about how we work collaboratively on the federal level to develop a comprehensive strategy. 

Let me start by talking about how we at the Department of Justice approach this issue.  Usually, when folks think of the Attorney General and DOJ, they think about protecting national security, about putting criminals in jail, about defending the President’s health care policies.  But our job is public safety in all its forms – and I feel so fortunate to work for an Attorney General who has a vision of justice that starts with preventing crime before it happens, protecting our children, and ending cycles of violence and victimization.  No matter what the disagreements are in Washington about funding for particular programs, we can all agree that every young person deserves the opportunity to grow and develop free from fear of violence. 

The types of crimes we are discussing here ripple across the public and private spheres:  in the form of child sexual abuse, rape, sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, teen dating violence, sexting, cyberbullying, and violence in school settings against students who do not conform to stereotypical notions of how boys or girls are supposed to act.  Gender-based violence is an urgent criminal justice and safety issue that demands the full attention of not only the federal government but state, tribal, local and community partners if we are to be effective.  Stopping violence at the earliest possible stage in people’s lives will have the greatest long-term effect on reducing crime/violence and improving the health and livelihood of generations to come.  It is all of our job, every day. 

I’d like to share with you some of the things we’re currently doing at the Department of Justice to tackle this problem of gender-based violence by our youth, with a particular focus on the one place where we call come together -- our primary schools and our universities and colleges.  Many of you know us for our enforcement – in partnership with the Department of Education – of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to protect the rights of students from all forms of harassment and violence based on gender.  But we are engaged in this fight on so many other fronts as well.

One of the top priorities of this Department and a legacy item for AG Holder is the Defending Childhood Initiative.  Many of you may be familiar with this initiative, but it’s genesis goes back more than a decade.  When Eric Holder was Deputy Attorney General, he was struck by the research that showed that for every child that came in contact with the criminal justice system, there were 20, 30, 40, 100 moments in time where early intervention could have made a difference; had one of those missed opportunities been taken, one often would have found a child affected by violence at a young age who ultimately found there way to committing violence themselves, taking drugs, having trouble in school, etc.  He began an initiative on children exposed to violence, which led to much of the critical research that has taught us about the impact of violence on young people. 

When he returned as Attorney General, he began immediately where he left off, in what has now become the Defending Childhood initiative.  This initiative seeks to redefine how the Justice Department responds to children who experience violence, witness violence, or suffer ongoing negative ramifications from violence.   We hope to harness resources from across the Department (and across other federal agencies and state, local, and tribal partners) to – first, prevent exposure to violence when possible; second to mitigate the negative impact of violence when it does occur; and third, to develop knowledge and spread awareness that will ultimately improve our homes, cities, towns, and communities. I am proud of the work we have done already in communities across the country, through our grantees and US Attorneys offices, to launch innovative programs and continue to cultivate and share best practices.

Defending Childhood cuts across the entire Department, but I also want to highlight the great work that a number of our components are doing individually.  The Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is heavily involved in addressing the issues of gender-based violence.  For years, the juvenile justice field has struggled to understand how best to respond to girls involved in the juvenile justice system.  Research indicates that the vast majority (90%) of incarcerated girls have histories of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.  They have been exposed to family violence; suffer from substance use; experience widespread school failure; and have complex health and mental health needs.  In comparison to boys in the juvenile justice system, studies have shown that abuse and neglect are more common, start earlier in life, and have longer-lasting effects on girls.

OJJDP is leading two efforts to investigate ways to address the gender-based violence and victimization of our girls and its impact on juvenile delinquency: (1)  the interdisciplinary Girls Study Group,  designed to remedy systemic issues that result in disparate treatment of girls in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and (2)  the "Strengthening Initiative for Native Girls" (SING)—which is assisting the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians to establish a Native Girls Group focused on reinforcing  self-esteem and other prevention strategies.

OJJDP has also long worked on one of the most serious types of gender-based violence, the commercial sexual exploitation of children, including domestic sex trafficking. A primary partner in this effort is the Harlem based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services program (GEMS).  In addition to the outreach work they conduct in the New York City Schools, the program provides training to law enforcement and others in communities across the country on the prevention, identification, and intervention of girls being drawn into commercial sexual exploitation.

We are also learning how to respond to a new environment influencing the relationships of our young people. OJJDP has initiated research to better understand the emerging phenomenon of sexting among our youth.  Early evidence indicates that girls’ explicit photos are forwarded and “go viral” three times more often than pictures of boys, creating a new area of concern for our young women, which we at Justice hope to tackle. 

We think that part of the answer lies in helping our young people learn to develop healthy relationships.  The Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has been a leader in supporting a growing body of research into teen dating violence to better our understanding of the causes and consequences of teen dating violence, as well as the effectiveness of a range of prevention and intervention programs.

In the fall of 2005, the Federal Interagency Workgroup on Teen Dating Violence was formed under NIJ leadership. This workgroup—with representatives from the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Education, Defense, Interior, and the Office of the Vice President—meets regularly to coordinate Federal research, program and policy efforts. The group convened a 2007 conference on “Teen Dating Violence: Developing a Research Agenda to Meet Practice Needs,” which resulted in increased funding opportunities and grant support at both NIJ and NIH in this emerging research area.

We learn so much every year.  We know we need to start our prevention efforts younger and younger, because the brain science tells us that the critical periods of learning and development come early and we know that young people are dating younger and younger.  In so many ways, our best allies, our best teachers, our most important partners are young people themselves.  We can talk about government programs and ideas coming from Washington all we want, but we have to meet young people where they are.  We must recognize that teens have their own culture—their own way of relating to one another.  They need to be empowered to design programs that will work for them.

Nowhere have I learned this lesson more than when I heard from a speaker you will hear from shortly.  Amber Johnson was on part of a panel discussion that the Attorney General and the Secretary of Education held in December of 2009 with young people to discuss health relationships among teens.  It quickly focused on how teens can best help each other, in particular through Amber’s work with Start Strong. 

We are excited at DOJ to support such programs.  One such project funded through OVW is collaboration between the Family Violence Prevention Fund AD Council is That’s Not Cool.Com , an interactive website about digital abuse. The website provides interactive, web-based tools and resources to prevent teen dating violence; it promotes positive friendships and relationships, raises awareness about the signs of abuse, and most importantly, educates teens about the “digital gray areas”—texting, instant messaging, social networking.  In just one three-month period last year (2010) the site received 145,486 visits.  Last year as part of the 15th anniversary of VAWA campaign and the first full Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, That’s Not Cool entered into a partnership with the NFL Player’s Association to launch a contest that invited teens to create a callout card.  The winner attended the NFL Players’ Association Gala and runner’s up received NFL autographed memorabilia.  We are encouraged by these types of partnerships and creative thinking that find new ways to engage teens by appealing to their own interests. 

Another program comes from a less well-known source – the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service (“CRS”), which was created in the Civil Rights Act of ’64 address conflict and civil rights issues.  CRS works with young people in schools and in the community to help prevent and respond effectively to gender-based violence.  CRS offers services to help support and empower youth, with the goal of creating a sustainable environment of respect and understanding in schools.

One of those services is the Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together (SPIRIT) Program—an interactive student based problem-solving program that engages students in developing solutions together to problems associated with allegations of discrimination, harassment, and hate activity in schools and creating the safest possible environment for learning.  SPIRIT also engages school administrators, teachers, school resource officers, local officials, community leaders, and parents in the process of identifying and responding to these conflicts in schools creating a safe environment where student viewpoints are respected. 

We know that intervening in early education is a critical step, but the work does not end there.  We are alarmed by the level of sexual assault on our nation’s college campuses.  A National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study on the extent of sexual assault among college women found that over the course of a college career 1 in 4 women will be raped.  To learn more about efforts around the country aimed at curbing this unacceptable statistic, Department of Justice leadership visited 11 universities around the nation in March of last year, including public, private, faith-based and Historically Black institutions.  We spoke with students about ways to prevent violence against women on college campuses, and the role that federal, state and local government, working with university staff, faculty and students, should play in ensuring that these crimes are taken seriously and their victims and perpetrators treated appropriately.  We were encouraged to see that in many instances, students had confronted the issue of sexual assault head-on and organized grassroots cross-campus efforts to educate on sexual assault and motivate others to get involved.  I would note that one of the most common topics discussed and an area for future work by us was the issue of bystanders and how they can be drawn more effectively into the fight against violence – an issue that the Vice-President spoke so eloquently about earlier this week. 

I know that I have breezed through a number of things that we are doing at DOJ, but they are really only the tip of the iceberg.  Whether it’s using the platform that the Attorney General and other Department officials have to speak on these issues, the funding that we receive from Congress to focus on these issues, or the daily work of the extraordinary people at OJJDP, OVW, and other parts of the Department, we are committed to finding solutions so that we may reach our ultimate goal of helping our youth live free of violence.  

This is everyone’s fight, and summits like this that emphasize collaboration across all agencies, disciplines, and age groups are critical .  Thank you – for your partnership and leadership, for your enthusiasm, and for your vision of a world where our children are no longer exposed to gender-based violence or any type of violence.  Together, we can usher in a new era of service to and support of the most precious and vulnerable among us; and in so doing, we can transform the country that we love for the better – one child at a time.

Thank you.

Updated September 17, 2014