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Sen. Huffman, advocates at odds over best way to combat sexual assault

Some sexual assault survivors and advocates are clashing with a Texas senator over the best way to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, during a meeting of the Senate State Affairs Committee on March 27, 2017. 

Some sexual assault survivors and advocates are clashing with a Texas senator over the best way to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

Under Senate Bill 576 by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, school employees and student leaders at public, private and independent institutions would be required to “promptly” report instances of “sexual harassment, sexual assault, family violence or stalking” to the school’s president.

Her bill was passed by the Senate and sent to the House for consideration.

“It’s time to put a real and tangible number to these acts on our campuses,” Huffman said in laying out her proposal on the Senate floor April 4.

But opponents of the bill say victims should decide whether they want to report a sexual assault.

“I understand [SB 576] wants to find perpetrators and bring them to justice,” said Austin Smith, an undergraduate student at the University of Texas. “But really, what we need to do is focus on what the survivor needs. A lot of people think filing a report is equivalent to finding help, but that’s not the case.”

As a resident assistant in a campus dorm, Smith said he is required to report sexual assaults if he finds out about them in the course of his duties.

“Whenever we write reports that survivors don’t want to be written, again we’re taking away their autonomy,” he said. “We’re making choices for them instead of letting them choose.”

If an employee fails to promptly report sexual assault, harassment or stalking under Senate Bill 576, the university could fire them — although “promptly” isn’t defined in the bill (a previous version required reporting within 48 hours). Resident assistants, heads of student organizations and other student leaders could be suspended for at least a year for failing to report a case.

On the administrative side, the president of the institution would be required to present a report to the governing board once a semester on the number of sexual assault reports, the number of investigations conducted as a result of those reports and any disciplinary action taken.

While introducing her bill on the Senate floor, Huffman said one of the reasons she filed it was “to, frankly, prevent the kind of cover-up that occurred at one of our major private universities recently that we all read about in the press,” alluding to a sexual assault scandal at Baylor University that was made public in 2015.

A federal lawsuit filed in January claimed that 31 players on the Baylor football team committed 52 acts of rape from 2011 to 2014, far more than had been previously disclosed by university officials.

Some senators expressed concerns over the difference in how private universities such as Baylor would be penalized versus public ones. The bill would allow the Higher Education Coordinating Board to penalize independent or private institutions with a fine of up to $2 million for not complying, but it would let the Legislature decide the repercussions for public institutions.

Though Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, voted for the bill, he said, “If the Legislature adjudicates public universities [separately], we create a system of unequal justice.”

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said she hoped Huffman's bill would produce more accurate data for sexual assaults on Texas college campuses.

“I think it’s very important for us to know and have hard data on what’s going on. I think this is a great first step,” Nelson said.

In crafting her legislation, Huffman said she worked with various advocacy groups, including the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. The group's director of public policy, Chris Kaiser, said that while SB 576 contains “strong provisions to promote public transparency and oversight,” his group believes the number of sexual assaults on campus could be lowered without expanding current reporting mandates.

“Sexual assault survivors have told us consistently that limiting options for confidential disclosures makes it more difficult for survivors to come forward. When survivors tell us what they need to find safety, stability and healing, we need to listen,” he said.

Huffman said it was “misguided” to suggest that her bill didn’t aim to protect the interests of victims and ensure due process. Despite some concerns with her bill, Huffman said she, survivors and sexual assault advocates all want the same thing.

“The sentiment from all parties is clear — we all share the common goal of eliminating sexual offenses on our college campuses,” she said. “The cover-ups occurring on our college campuses must stop.”

Meanwhile, some advocates are pushing for a trio of bills from state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, which were voted out of the Senate on Monday and Tuesday.

Senate Bill 968 would would let students and employees electronically and anonymously report sexual assaults to their university. Senate Bill 969 would grant amnesty to students who report a sexual assault even if they were violating other laws themselves — such as underage drinking — and Senate Bill 970 would require public and private universities to establish sexual assault policies and public awareness campaigns.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Most registered sex offenders would be barred from living on college campuses under a bill unanimously approved by a House committee.
  • As Baylor University continues grappling with the fallout from a sexual assault scandal, legislators from both parties say what happened at Baylor has sparked a bipartisan effort to address the issue at the state level.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here. 

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