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Austin senator — a Baylor alum — takes aim at university sexual assault

Sen. Kirk Watson's proposed bills would require universities to provide an anonymous online sexual assault reporting process and would prohibit administrators from punishing victims who reveal they were drinking underage at the time of an attack.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, answers a question during a panel discussion on Jan. 31, 2017.

*Clarification appended

Responding to a sexual assault scandal that has rocked Baylor University over the past two years, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has filed legislation to make it easier for college students to report sexual violence.

His five bills, which extend to public and private institutions alike, would require universities to provide an anonymous online reporting process and would prohibit administrators from punishing sexual assault victims or witnesses who reveal that they were drinking underage.

Watson's legislation also would establish “affirmative consent” as the standard for Texas campuses — which his bill defines as "express consent demonstrated through words or actions indicating an active and voluntary agreement to participate in an act."

“There’s no question as a Baylor alum, I love my school, but I’ve been extraordinarily disappointed,” Watson said. “These bills aren’t all about Baylor. We need to change the culture on all campuses.”

Watson said high-profile cases of universities seriously mishandling sexual assault allegations have created momentum for change. 

A federal lawsuit filed against Baylor in January claims 31 football players at the school committed 52 acts of rape from 2011 to 2014, which is far more than had been previously disclosed by university officials. It alleges a culture in which female students were used to recruit football players with “an implied promise of sex” and suggests coaches helped promote that culture.

Last year in response to the scandal, Baylor fired football coach Art Briles and demoted President Ken Starr, who later left the school. Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogelman said in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Tuesday that the university "took unprecedented corrective actions that led to leadership changes within the university administration and athletic department.”

“No other university in the country has responded as aggressively and decisively as Baylor regarding incidents of sexual assaults on campus,” she said.

Watson said he has “seen, at least in some institutions, very good intentions to make sure young people on our campuses are safe.” He said several schools, for example, already have affirmative consent policies in place. 

“We should all presume a person has a right to privacy and control over her body without her having to object,” Watson said. “When it comes to intimacy, no still means no, but the absence of yes also means no.”

Sofie Karasek, co-founder of the group End Rape on Campus, said in a news release that Watson’s legislation will make it easier for students to come forward.

"For years, victims of sexual assault have been discouraged from reporting, fearing that their cases wouldn't be taken seriously, their assailants wouldn't be punished, or that they themselves could be penalized in cases involving alcohol or drugs," she said.

Chris Kaiser, director of public policy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said he thought the new bills successfully acknowledged “survivors’ real experience of trauma.”

It “demands that we abandon outdated thinking about rape,” Kaiser said in a statement.

Although Watson’s bills largely focus on making it easier for students to report sexual assault, he is also working on legislation that targets institutional failure and penalizes schools for failing to be proactive.

Watson has co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, that would hold school employees and student leaders accountable for reporting instances of “sexual harassment, sexual assault, family violence or stalking” to the school’s president within 48 hours of becoming aware of the incident.

*Clarification: A previous version of this story limited "affirmative consent" to verbal acknowledgement. Watson's bill allows for "words or actions." 

Read more on the Baylor sexual assault scandal: 

  • Baylor could lose millions of dollars as the Big 12 Conference works to make sure that the school has properly responded to its sexual assault scandal.
  • A federal lawsuit filed against Baylor University claims 31 football players at the school committed 52 acts of rape from 2011 to 2014, which is far more than had been previously disclosed by university officials.

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Higher education Politics Joan Huffman