Students press lawmakers to pass campus sexual assault bills

Texas Politics
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AUSTIN, Texas (Nexstar) — University students and survivor advocates pleaded with lawmakers on The Texas House Committee on Higher Education to pass bills they say would strengthen resources and protocols for cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

House Bill 1735, filed by Sen. Donna Howard, D-Austin, would require public and private colleges and universities to adopt a policy on campus related to sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. The policy must include definitions of prohibited behavior, sanctions for violations, the protocol for reporting and responding to these allegations and interim measures to protect victims, including protection from retaliation and other accommodations.

Colleges and universities would also have to craft a statement highlighting the importance of getting these victims hospital treatment and the preservation of evidence if applicable, the right of a victim to report the incident to the institution and to law enforcement. The legislation would require each peace officer on campus to complete training on trauma-informed investigations into these allegations.  

Each campus would also need to designate one or more employees to act as a Title IX coordinator.

Ashka Dighe, a student with the It’s On Us chapter at The University of Texas at Austin, told lawmakers has spent the last semester working closely with sexual assault survivors and gained a better understanding about how the Title IX process works and universities can better support victims. She also said one of her closest friends was involved in a Title IX investigation last spring.

“I watched her struggle through such an emotionally tolling few months. She said she was saved by the Office of the Dean of Students because they provided confidential advocates. She was able to speak freely and in complete confidentiality with somebody who was actually trained to advise her on what she could actually do to teach her how the Title IX investigation works and to be there for emotional support without sitting there in fear she was going to lose control of everything that was going on.”

Dighe said her friend wasn’t aware that she could choose not to participate in the investigation until after she had told a Title IX official about what happened to her.

“Students need to be properly informed of their rights and their options before entering the investigative process and this bill will ensure students are given access to those appropriate resources to thoroughly inform them about the university’s protocol, the reporting process and their rights during everything.”

If determined that a private college or university is not in substantial compliance with provisions outlined in the bill, the Higher Education Coordinating Board could issue a fine of up to $2 million.  

Howard’s bill was passed in 2017 but never made it through the entire legislative process.

“The federal government has been working on this and they go back and forth on how this is going to go,” Howard said. “We need to be taking care of our students now.”

Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, has filed another bill that would require the Higher Education Coordinating Board to study how colleges and universities respond to reports of sexual assault committed against students. She acknowledged universities have taken steps to address the issue but said a thorough analysis, along with recommendations from the board, is needed. 

“What we still need to do is find out are there any other policies or procedures or things that are in place that are preventing reports of sexual assault or hindering investigations of reports at institutions of higher education,” Neave said. 

Part of her bill would also have each college and university send a survey to students about their perceptions.

“We can hear from the universities but we definitely want to hear from the students,” she said.

A fiscal note attached to the bill says based on an analysis of the agency’s response, it’s likely the responsibilities outlined by the provisions in the bill could be accomplished with existing resources. The board would have to submit a report of its findings to the Texas Legislature by December 2020.

Another bill, filed by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, would require public and private colleges and universities to add a disciplinary notation on a student’s transcript if they were suspended or expelled. If a student were to withdraw during an ongoing investigation that may result in their suspension or expulsion, the institution wouldn’t be able to end the disciplinary process until officials make a final determination.

Turner, who chairs the committee, referenced the December 2018 case of Jacob Anderson, a former Baylor University fraternity president accused of rape who was then expelled following criminal indictments on four counts of sexual assault. He transferred to The University of Texas at Dallas. The university’s president, Richard Benson, has said the school admitted him “without knowing their legal history.” 

“There was no information on the Baylor transcript to indicate he had been expelled so UT Dallas didn’t know,” Turner said. “To be clear, this happens in a number of institutions where students transfer and the new institution doesn’t know.”

The University of Texas System already has this process in place.

“The transcript is the only document that follows a student from institution to institution,” Wanda Mercer, associate vice chancellor for The University of Texas System, said. “It’s the student’s official record.”

Mercer said it’s important for any campus accepting a student for transfer to know if they’re in good standing at their previous institution. The bill would allow for the notation to get removed at the request of the student if the institution finds good cause and each condition of the suspension has been fulfilled.

When Turner’s bill was brought up in committee in 2017, Sierra Smith, a senior, testified at the Capitol in support of the legislation, outlining her investigation and how her assailant was able to transfer to a new school and start with a clean record. Smith, who is set to graduate from Baylor in May, was back Wednesday, saying:

“I’m not in the business of ruining lives and I absolutely never want to be. In fact, I want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to be the best version of themselves and live their best possible lives. That belief in people and in growth is why I strongly support this bill. My assailant was allowed to transfer and escape being responsible for his actions. He was denied his opportunity for growth. He was not given a chance to reflect and become better, to learn and to make sure he never did this anybody and to make sure he never hurt anybody like he hurt me.” 

All three bills were left pending in committee.

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