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At Texas A&M, a renewed dispute over the university’s response to sexual assault

A varsity swimmer was found "responsible" for sexually assaulting a fellow student. But after a brief suspension and one semester of academic probation, he can rejoin the team.

Students on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station.

In fall 2015, two Texas A&M University students had a sexual encounter at the on-campus White Creek Apartment complex. Months later, after a disciplinary hearing, the university would find the male student, a varsity swimmer, “responsible” for “anal penetration … without clear consent,” according to university documents.

Two years after it was quietly resolved by a university disciplinary board, that case has found its way into the news: The swimmer has returned from his mandatory one-semester suspension from the university, and after a semester of "conduct probation," he’s eligible to rejoin the team. That likely means his athletics scholarship — which was taken away while he was suspended, and unavailable to him while he was not in good academic standing — will be returned, according to Craig Greaves, the lawyer who represented him through his university proceedings.

The student who had accused the swimmer of assault took to Twitter last week to protest his reinstatement to the team, sharing an email she said she received from a university athletics administrator who offered little more than her “regret” over the accuser’s “displeasure" that the swimmer could continue competing.  

Me: I’m unhappy the boy who r*ped me is back on the swim team
Texas A&M:

— hannah (@hannahslol) June 7, 2018

In the days since, the case has become a media firestorm. After her tweet was shared by tens of thousands of people, the survivor appeared on the TODAY show; after Greaves got on Facebook in an attempt to “present all the facts,” he’s been attacked for “victim blaming” and even torn down as a “crook” in his law firm’s Google reviews. A growing Facebook group of A&M sexual assault survivors and an ever-lengthening list of signatures on a petition for university action demonstrate how far, and how fast, the movement has spread.

The momentum highlights the precarious position universities find themselves in when they dole out academic punishments for what would, in off-campus courts, be considered criminal offenses. In a slate of high-profile cases across the country in recent years, sexual assault survivors’ advocates and other groups have called out universities for giving what many consider overly-lenient punishments to students who have been found guilty of sexual misconduct — especially in cases that involve student-athletes.

“The NCAA and the schools say ‘We treat everyone the same,’ but all of us can see that not all kids are treated the same,” said Brenda Tracy, a sexual assault survivors’ advocate and a member of the NCAA’s Commission to Combat Sexual Violence. “These students are given tutors and are sometimes eating catered meals. Their experience on campus is different. When you have a Title IX officer who gets a report of rape by a kid that’s a biology major versus a kid who is a star football player, it’s going to be treated differently.”

In Texas, intense scrutiny over how universities handle allegations of sexual assault among students is nothing new. Perhaps the most prominent example is an ongoing, years-long scandal at Baylor University, where a wave of administrators resigned after revelations that a culture of sexual harassment and abuse was allowed to fester among many of the school’s top athletes. Baylor’s conference — the Big 12, which also includes the University of Texas at Austin — sanctioned the university by withholding millions of dollars in revenue.

And at A&M, the case involving the swimmer has brought back into public eye a similar incident: In 2016, a female student accused Kirk Merritt, an A&M football player, of exposing himself to her during a student tutoring session. (Merritt would defend that as the inevitable result of “jock itch.”) After public outcry, he was quietly removed from the team and transferred to a different university.

Meghan Romere, who spoke anonymously about the case at the time but came out publicly this week after the story about the swimmer surfaced, said her case was a clear instance of a student-athlete being privileged over a non-athlete.

“With a student-athlete, there’s more motivation for the university to twist things and paint these cases by downplaying the victim,” Romere said. “These are students that the university spent lots of money courting; they may be on scholarship and the university has a lot of motivation to keep them around. But when these students commit acts like this, they should not be held higher than the students that they abuse.”

A&M said in a statement that, in the interest of privacy, it cannot comment on individual students’ cases. There is no separate sexual violence policy for student-athletes, and students are allowed to rejoin their teams on a case-by-case basis. A spokeswoman said it is “common practice” for administrators “to discuss the nature of the rule violation, sanctions and conditions that must be met if it’s determined that rejoining the team is possible.”

This month, A&M finds itself under attack for being too lenient in punishing students found responsible for sexual violence. But in the past it has faced the opposite accusation.

In the wake of a March 2014 sexual assault case, a male non-athlete student who was suspended for several sexual misconduct charges alleged his rights had been violated by an overly strict punishment, and the university faced an investigation from the federal government. And in May 2015, a track athlete accused of sexual assault sued A&M, arguing that his two-year suspension was unfair because the university hearing had unfairly favored his accuser.

The Southeastern Conference, which includes A&M as well as other top football schools like the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, bars freshman recruits or transfer students who have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a felony involving sexual assault or domestic violence. But that wouldn’t apply to the swimmer, who was found “responsible” by a university panel but not charged with a criminal offense.

Earlier this month, the Big Sky Conference, which does not include any Texas schools, went even further: It barred from athletic competition any student found guilty of a violent sexual offense either in a court of law or through a university proceeding. It was the first league in the NCAA to do so, it said.

“That’s the best practice right now that we have out there,” Tracy said. The NCAA did not return a request for comment about its policies.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, The University of Texas at Austin and Baylor University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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