‘I probably wouldn’t have reported,’ says sexual assault survivor of campus rule changes

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A survivor of sexual assault at Baylor University said Saturday she worries recent changes made by the U.S. Department of Education will make it less likely that students on college campuses will report their assaults to the universities.

Sierra Smith, currently a senior at the private university in Waco, spoke with KXAN following her appearance on a panel discussing campus sexual assault at the Texas Tribune Festival Saturday morning. It came a day after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos changed Obama-era rules that govern the burden of proof necessary to find a student guilty of sexually assaulting another.

Under the old rules, accusers only had to prove a “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning it was more likely than not that the assault happened. The new rules allow schools to use a higher burden of proof, “clear and convincing evidence,” which means that it’s substantially more likely than not that it happened.

Colleges can use either standard.

“The standard of evidence for evaluating a claim of sexual misconduct should be consistent with the standard the school applies in other student misconduct cases,” the education department wrote in a Q&A paper published online.

The change is aimed at making the disciplinary process more fair for students who are accused of sexual assault; but advocates and sexual assault survivors worry about what the rules will lead to.

“One of the quotes that actually stuck out to me was the accused go in feeling like they’re already guilty and have no way out,” Smith said, “but it’s the same way for victims. Victims go in thinking they’ve already lost and that they’re just going to have to be at school with their assailants forever.”

When Smith reported her sexual assault to the Baylor administration, she said it took them close to a year to investigate and resolve. “I was just so worried the whole time that it would end in a way that I couldn’t probably handle.”

Eventually the other student was found guilty of the assault, but now she worries a higher burden of proof will deter future students from reporting.

“I probably wouldn’t have reported under those circumstances,” she said.

Smith was one of five people on stage at the Texas Tribune Festival panel. It wasn’t specifically geared toward DeVos’ rule changes a day before, but that was the first issue to come up.

Paula Lavigne, an investigative reporter for ESPN who reported extensively on the Baylor sexual assault scandal, was also on the panel and said she’s hopeful the policy shift won’t result in colleges putting the problem on the back-burner.

“Despite what the policies are, the pressure from the public and the pressure from the students are not going away,” Lavigne said.

But what’s going to happen on campuses like the University of Texas at Austin remains unclear. The school doesn’t know yet, for instance, what impact the new rules will have on already-pending cases.

“Our attorneys will look at what was issued yesterday and how that transpires over the next weeks,” Dr. Wanda Mercer, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at UT, told the panel audience. “It’s hard to say in the specifics what exactly is going to happen.”

Smith hopes DeVos takes time to meet with survivors like herself. She doesn’t want the changes to mean future students won’t get the outcome she did. “It’ll be even harder for survivors to get any sort of justice,” she said.

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