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Baylor Says It's Improving Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

At a hearing in Austin Tuesday, Baylor University officials didn't address specific incidents that have put the school under a national microscope and raised concerns that it routinely ignores the needs of victims.

Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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

A student affairs administrator at Baylor University told Texas lawmakers Tuesday that his school has made preventing and responding to sexual violence a top priority, but he didn't address specific incidents that have put the school under a national microscope.

Speaking to the Texas House Higher Education Committee, Kevin Jackson, vice president of student life, said Baylor is devoting new resources to counseling students who have been assaulted. It's also stepping up training for students, faculty and staff to prevent and respond to allegations of rape or other sexual violence, he said. 

"Our goal is for students to feel safe and be safe on campus," Jackson said. 

Jackson didn’t address the intense and sustained scrutiny the school has received after allegations surfaced that it hasn’t done enough to punish offenders and has failed to support victims of sexual assault. And he didn’t face many tough questions on the subject during his 20 minutes of testimony, during which he said he couldn’t discuss particular cases because of privacy concerns.

One lawmaker, state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, told Jackson that he was unhappy with the school. But his reason had nothing to do with sexual assault. He jokingly said he was angry because the university stole Ken Starr from his former law school, Pepperdine University. Starr is Baylor’s president, and he presided over the Pepperdine law school before he took the top job at Baylor.

Baylor’s handling of sexual violence has been in the spotlight since last year, when football player Sam Ukwuachu was convicted of raping a female student on campus. As required by law, the university investigated Ukwuachu when the allegation was first made but didn’t take any punitive action.

Even after he was arrested, Ukwuachu remained on campus and, two months before his trial, an assistant coach predicted that the athlete would play in the 2015 football season. Meanwhile, the victim testified that she felt traumatized when she encountered Ukwuachu on campus. She eventually left the university.

In February, ESPN reported several other instances in which Baylor was alleged to inadequately investigate allegations of sexual violence. Two of those cases involved another football player, Tevin Elliott. Each time, the victim went to the university for help but felt that her concerns were ignored or downplayed.

Elliott was convicted of rape and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2014.  

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, asked Jackson about concerns related specifically to athletics. Jackson responded that he views athletic teams as "affinity groups." Those groups, which also include fraternities and other clubs, can be insular and develop their own rituals, he said.

Athletics can be a great source of university pride, Jackson said, so the schools need to make sure that the pride doesn't cause the teams to operate "in an environment where it is not thoroughly integrated in the life of the university."

"We have to be ever vigilant for every affinity group, especially for college athletics, to make sure we have the kind of leadership in place and organization in place to make sure that those environments don't become insular," Jackson said. 

In an interview afterward, Jackson said Baylor athletics had that kind of leadership. Athletics Director Ian McCaw and the schools’ coaches are “100 percent on board” with the university's position, he said. 

“We have very high standards,” he said.

Under a federal statute known as Title IX, universities are required to investigate and take action when an allegation of sexual assault is made against a student. The schools are expected to hold disciplinary hearings and consider punitive action if officials determine that a crime was likely to have occurred. Universities are also expected to provide counseling and other help for victims of sexual violence.

In his testimony, Jackson cited several steps the university has taken to comply. He said the university now has a Title IX coordinator, along with full-time investigators and staff members who are tasked with educating students. He said the university recently allocated $900,000 per year to expand its student counseling staffing and enhance training for counselors. And he said that all incoming and returning students and staff will receive sexual assault prevention training next fall. 

"We are providing a clear message that sexual violence has no place in our community," Jackson said. 

He later added: "We have work to do; we know that. But we get up every day focused on this."

After the hearing, Jackson said it would be inaccurate to say those measures were put in place in response to recent complaints. He said he served on a task force devoted to reviewing Title IX compliance in 2013, and many of those efforts began then. 

“We were working very hard to do the right thing,” he said.

Last month, about 200 students stood outside Starr’s on-campus home in response to the issue. Media reports described the events as protests to urge the campus to improve its response. But Jackson described them differently.

“These were prayer vigils,” he said. “As a private Christian university, one of the things I love about our students is we have a deeply caring and compassionate community. So they looked at this and asked the question what can we do? How can we approach this? Their minds immediately went to prayer vigils.”

Baylor was one of three Texas universities that had representatives speak during the hearing. Also included was Texas A&M, which is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for how it handles sexual assault allegations on campus. A&M’s investigation began when it was accused of going to far in punishing a male student accused of sexual assault. General Counsel Ray Bonilla said the university believes it behaved properly in the case. 

“We have taken a very close look at that case,” Bonilla said. “We are very comfortable with the process and how the manner was handled.”

The third university present at the hearing was the University of Texas at Austin, which briefed legislators on the research and training its staff is conducting on the issue.

During the hearing, state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, drew social media scorn when she asked about the role of alcohol on campus sexual assaults.

“I was listening for mention of drug or alcohol abuse and, you know, I think those two conversations are intertwined,” she said. “I would be curious to see how may times a pure, sober sexual assault happened. And I think that’s something we need to talk about. The two are so intertwined, I don’t see talking about one without talking about the other.”

Crownover’s description of a “pure, sober sexual assault” outraged some people who felt the comment suggested that women who were raped while drunk were somehow to blame or weren’t really victims. Afterward, Crownover said that wasn’t what she meant, and that the comment was taken out of context.

“Let me be clear,” she said in a statement, “whether or not the victim of a sexual assault was intoxicated does not mitigate, condone or excuse the actions of the other party.”

She added, however, that “we cannot properly address the issue of sexual assault on college campuses without also discussing the role drugs and alcohol play in this important issue.” 

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

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