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Sexual Assault Common, Outcry Rare at UT-Austin, Texas A&M

More than 18 percent of female undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin and about 15 percent at Texas A&M say they have been sexually assaulted since arriving on campus, according to comprehensive surveys released Monday.

University of Texas at Austin students pass by the Main Building on their way to and from classes.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout. 

More than 18 percent of female undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin and about 15 percent at Texas A&M say they have been sexually assaulted since arriving on campus, according to comprehensive surveys released Monday. 

Those rates are too high, school officials say, but appear to be lower than the schools’ peers. The numbers were compiled through surveys conducted at 27 schools that are members of the “tier one” Association of American Universities.

“One sexual assault is too many,” said UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves in a statement. “It is essential that we foster a campus that does not tolerate sexual assaults while strongly encouraging victims to come forward and report incidents." 

But while the reported incidents were lower than average, a significant portion of students at both schools didn’t express confidence that allegations of assault would be taken seriously by their university. Other campuses had the same problem.

At UT-Austin, 62 percent of students said they thought it was likely or extremely likely that a report of sexual assault would be taken seriously. That is just below the national average of 63 percent. Confidence was higher at A&M, where 73.4 percent of students thought it was likely or extremely likely that school officials would take a report seriously.

A&M also fared much better than its peers in students’ confidence in how an on-campus investigation would play out. More than 64 percent of students said A&M would be likely or extremely likely to conduct a fair investigation. At UT-Austin, that number was 47 percent, below the national average of 49 percent.

"Everybody here at A&M really understands from the deepest level that the students are the focus of the enterprise," said A&M President Michael K. Young. "There is a sense here that their concerns matter and we are going to address them."

Young said he thinks A&M's numbers may be slightly better because of the culture of respect and service on the A&M campus. Still, he said the university won't be satisfied until all students have confidence in the school's ability to handle cases. 

Federal law requires schools to investigate and consider taking action when a student accuses another student of sexual assault. Schools are expected to ensure that the victim is taken care of and able to continue his or her schooling safely and comfortably. The alleged assaulter can be suspended or kicked off campus.

Both Texas schools have ramped up their efforts to combat sexual violence. The UT System recently launched a $1.7 million initiative that includes in-depth surveys of all campuses, along with studies that closely follow smaller cohorts of students throughout their four years on campus. The effort is "the most comprehensive sexual assault study in higher education," system officials said. 

Meanwhile, A&M has launched a publicity campaign that encourages students to speak out against sexual assault and to intervene in cases where a student appears at risk. 

Still, the survey indicates that much more work is needed. Just 26 percent of female respondents who said they were were raped while students said they reported the incident to a proper authority. At A&M, that rate was 23 percent. Female students who said they were incapacitated during a rape reported at an even lower rate — 15 percent at UT-Austin and 14 percent at A&M.

Young said he suspects that many students don't know the full range of options available to them if they report a sexual assault. 

"We need to do a good job to communicate that, no, we aren't going to blame the victim and we want to make sure that services are provided that are in line with their needs," he said. 

At both schools, about 6 percent of females who said they were victims of "nonconsensual sexual touching" reported the assault to authorities.

Women at both schools listed feelings of shame, embarrassment or fear of emotional difficulty as the top reasons they didn’t report the assaults. The other primary reason was that the women didn’t think their cases were serious enough to report.

It's a sign, school officials said, that more outreach is needed. Simply conducting the survey and publishing its results should help show students that sexual assault prevention is a priority, said LaToya Hill, who presides over the UT-Austin office that handles assault cases. UT-Austin leaders plan to meet with student groups and conduct focus groups to reinforce that impression, she said. 

"We have to go in a grassroots type of way, and just listen to those students," she said. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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