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Following backlash, Texas A&M overhauls its sexual misconduct policies

The A&M System is banning relationships between undergraduate students and faculty or staff. Meanwhile, the flagship campus in College Station is implementing nearly a dozen changes to the student disciplinary process.

The Academic Building on the Texas A&M University campus on March 26, 2018.

* This story has been updated with additional comment.

Responding to backlash over how its flagship campus handles sexual assault allegations, officials in the Texas A&M University System have embraced a wholesale overhaul of the disciplinary process, unveiling Monday mandatory sanctions for students and faculty that go so far as to require the automatic firing of any employee found responsible for sexual harassment.

The new regulations, which take effect immediately, ban faculty and staff from having consensual relationships with undergraduate students at A&M System schools and mandate that employees be terminated if found responsible for making sexual advances that are unwelcome, persistent and pervasive enough to constitute harassment.

Spurred in part by the #MeToo movement, which brought into the mainstream a conversation about harassment within institutions, colleges across the country have faced recent scrutiny for levying what critics deem to be lenient and inconsistent responses to campus misconduct.

Officials at the flagship campus, who announced Monday a battery of changes to their own student disciplinary processes, came under fire in June when a female student denounced on Twitter the school’s response to her sexual assault case as lax and insensitive. Her message galvanized other female students to share their experiences and snowballed into a movement that garnered national attention.

On Monday, A&M President Michael Young said students on the College Station campus will now face tougher sanctions for sexual misconduct and that some discretion will be removed from the punishment process. Outlining nearly a dozen changes the school will immediately make, Young detailed initiatives often called for by victims' rights advocates, including an increase in the accessibility of counselors; having one case manager handle each grievance rather than a rotation of staff members; and requiring that transcripts be marked when a student has been suspended, dismissed or expelled in connection to misconduct.

A new system will also be established to decide if student-athletes and students who particulate in campus activities such as Greek life or the Corps of Cadets will be allowed to return after being found responsible for a violation of Title IX, the federal gender equity law. The dean of students, rather than a coach or organization leader, will now be arbiter on what interim restrictions are imposed on an accused student.

A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said in a statement Monday that the changes at A&M, which deal only with student conduct, would be extended to the system's 10 other campuses.

The recommendations are the result of two reviews Young commissioned in June, a week after the female student, Hannah Shaw, posted on Twitter. The student-athlete found responsible for sexually abusing her has since sued the school for infringing on his due process rights, highlighting the tightrope universities must walk when negotiating what academic punishments to mete out for offenses that, if adjudicated in a court of law, would be considered criminal.

The product of the reviews, a 23-page report issued by the Husch Blackwell law firm and a 32-page presentation from an internal task force, were both released publicly. Young formed two additional committees Monday, one to review the new changes for students and a second to consider how to overhaul the sanctions imposed on faculty members and staff.

“This is and always will be a continuous process," Young said in a statement. "The advocacy group that came forward gave us a chance to delve deeper, to listen to people who have engaged in this process. Their input has given us critical information to help make improvements.”

In past years, sexual misconduct cases involving student athletes have garnered outrage in Texas and across the country, where critics have at times decried college coaches or administrators for turning a blind eye to the transgressions of athletes or enabling a culture permissive of misconduct.

At other campuses, sexual misconduct from faculty members — and how to sanction those with tenure — has become an increasingly prominent and fractious issue.

Julie Harlin, speaker of the faculty senate at A&M, said she generally agrees with the goal of the system's new regulations, but that the key will be how they are implemented.

“The spirit is that we are trying to be more transparent about how we protect those that are in our institutions,” she said. “Where it gets dirty is in the details.”

Under Education Secretary Betsy Devos, the federal government has appeared to curtail its enforcement of Title IX, and rescinded Obama-era guidance that dictated how colleges should respond to sexual assaults on campus. At the time, around 2017, some administrators wondered if campuses would continue to pursue all misconduct allegations without the hammer of aggressive federal enforcement. But it seems most colleges have maintained their policies or ramped them up, at times under pressure from lawsuits, social media campaigns or the threat of bad publicity.

“The public attitude has been shifting very radically on this,” said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.

Nationally, policies mandating termination are “still gaining traction” because many schools want to “preserve the right to be flexible,” Lake said. But bans on consensual relationships between employees and undergraduates, and the imposition of minimum sanctions have become more common.

“Anybody that does criminal work knows that mandatory sentencing sometimes leads to nullification,” or that those minimum punishments are not doled out at all for fear they are overly-punitive. That thinking “presumes that those mandatory minimums are too stringent, and I don't know that they are,” Lake said.

A&M, he added, “may have caught a cultural moment."

Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System and Texas A&M 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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